The original plan was to give Shabazz Napier no more than 15 minutes. No sense overtaxing a guy seeing his first game action since hernia surgery in April.
It’s just summer league, right?
The Heat’s second-year guard looked anything but rusty, though, bringing a crispness to Wednesday night’s attack unseen earlier in the week. And when circumstances left Miami needing a savvy marshal in the closing minutes against the Los Angeles Clippers — well, who could resist?
It paid off, too, with Napier attacking the rim to score the final three points of an 87-85 victory, finishing with 14 points as the Heat remained unbeaten through the Orlando portion of their summer schedule.
“It was great to have him back [Wednesday],” said Dan Craig, coach of the Heat’s summer entry. “He’s been putting a lot of work in. It didn’t look like he skipped a beat in coming back.”
Though Napier still played just 17 minutes, his scoring output was second only to Willie Reed’s 17 points. More impressively, his six assists quickly established a new Heat best for the week.
“I actually feel good,” said the former UConn standout, part of an ice bag sticking out from his warmup pants. “It felt weird in the beginning, because I haven’t played [games] in a while — almost three months now. So it felt weird, but I felt comfortable once I got into it.”
Napier hadn’t played in a game since March, undergoing surgery April 1 to repair a sports hernia he suspects had been lingering since his college days. Though he participated in workouts last week to get ready for the summer schedule, he sat out the first three games.
“They just felt like it was best for me to continue to work on getting stronger,” Napier said. “I probably could have played the first game, but we decided it was best for me to sit a couple of games and get my rehab.”
Good timing, too. Napier’s return coordinated with rookie Justise Winslow getting most of the night off, as Heat coaches try to keep players fresh with the Las Vegas summer league following next week.
What wasn’t planned was Tyler Johnson’s departure midway through the third quarter, when he lost a tooth running into a hard screen at midcourt.
Johnson had served as the primary point guard as Napier worked his way back, with Winslow increasingly getting a chance to start the offense. Suddenly, neither were available as the Clippers scratched back from a 13-point deficit to close within four.
When D.J. Newbill’s basket brought the Clippers within 84-80 with 1:48 left, Craig sent Napier back onto the floor.
“That was kind of a conversation we were having as the game was going on,” Craig said. “I asked him how he was feeling; he felt great. And he was playing great, so we went back to him.”
Napier repeatedly attacked the basket during the final stages, including a drive with the score tied 85-85 that drew a foul with 3.8 seconds left. He made both free throws for the final margin.
“I’m not 100 percent yet,” he cautioned, “but I’m getting there.”
With an increasingly crowded situation at point guard, the summer could be pivotal for Napier. Goran Dragic’s new contract leaves him firmly set as the starter, with Napier and Mario Chalmers battling for the backup job.
Johnson’s progress, though, could give the Heat a less expensive option at that spot. And Winslow has shown himself rather comfortable when asked to start the offense. Reports this week indicate the Heat might be trying to gauge interest in Napier.
If that concerned Napier, he didn’t let on.
“I’m just looking at the team to get better,” he said, adding that he looks forward to another season of being able to learn from players such as Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Dragic.
▪ Even with a 4-0 record, there’s a chance the Heat could get squeezed out of playing for the league “championship” on Friday.
Both Memphis and Orlando’s White squad — the Magic has two entries — take 3-0 marks into their Thursday games, with a chance to match or exceed the 25 points the Heat has under the league’s points system. Game wins are worth four points, with one point given for each quarter won.
A White victory would leave it no worse than tied with Miami; Memphis needs to win two quarters to draw even. In case of a tie, point differential is the first criteria.