Justise Winslow had two moments in Sunday’s loss against the Los Angeles Clippers that kind of personified the first half of his rookie season with the Miami Heat.
First, he found himself so wide open for a three-pointer he almost didn’t know what to do with the ball. So he pump-faked and when the Clippers showed they were content to leave a 26.1 percent three-point shooter uncovered. Winslow put up a shot and airballed it.
About three minutes later, on the other end of the floor, the 19-year-old made up for it when he detoured a Clippers 3-on-1 fastbreak led by perennial All-Star Chris Paul all by himself.
“You can’t go after one person,” Winslow said Monday after practice of his defensive philosophy when he’s outmanned on the fast break.
“You can. But that’s kind of what they want you to do. You just have to play mind games, kind of stay in between and try to make them hesitate or second-guess themselves. Just a split second can buy you enough time for your teammates to get back.”
Yes, defense is still where Winslow does his best work. Among rookies, he’s holding opponents to the fifth-best field-goal percentage differential (-1.9).
But as the Heat prepares to wrap up the first half of the season Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena against the San Antonio Spurs, there’s also been signs of late — even with the airball and an 0-for-5 shooting day against the Clippers Sunday — that Winslow is also improving on the other side of the court.
The numbers alone show it: he has gone from averaging 5.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and shooting 38.3 percent from the field and 23 percent from three-point range through the first 39 games of the season to shooting 53.3 percent from the field, 42.9 percent from three and averaging 8.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1 steal a game over his last 10.
Does he feel that growth?
“Yeah, a little bit,” Winslow said. “Just becoming more familiar, more comfortable with the offense every day, finding my spots to be aggressive, especially in transition.”
Knocking down his jumper consistently is the next step. Although he’s shooting 52.2 percent from within 10 feet of the basket, Winslow is making only 29.8 percent of his shots on catch-and-shoots and 32 percent on pull-ups.
“I’m confident in the shot,” Winslow said. “But I’ve also been working with [Chris Bosh], talking with CB about catch-and-go, things of that nature. If they do want to sag off [like the Clippers did Sunday], you can get a head of steam and it’s really hard to stop a guy.
“It’s basically like a mini transition when you do that. I’m just working on that, to try to see that before it happens so as the play develops. I’m kind of ready to do that but also do it with confidence.”
The Spurs have a guy who kind of went through the same transition as a rookie in Kawhi Leonard. Known for his defense, Leonard, drafted 15th overall (Winslow went 10th to the Heat) in 2011, has gone from earning the 2014 NBA Finals MVP for how he shut down LeBron James to winning the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award last year and now earning a starting spot in the All-Star Game this year. He has become of the league’s best three-point shooters too.
As a rookie, Leonard averaged 7.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.1 assists, shot 49.3 percent from the field and 37.6 percent from three-point range — numbers more similar to what Winslow has been posting of late.
“You have to admire all the talented guys and it’s cool to see what he’s done, what he’s been able to accomplish,” Winslow said of Leonard. “He was a great defender and he’s gotten even better. In the Finals, becoming the MVP, to now he’s one of the game’s best two-way players. You have to admire a guy like that, whose really respected.”
But Winslow said there’s still a long way for him to go to make the jump like Leonard has. He watched film of Sunday’s loss and said he saw some mental breakdowns on defense that helped the Clippers. At times, he’s his own worst critic, even when coach Erik Spoelstra continues to say he’s trusting in Winslow more and giving the rookie more responsibility week to week.
“I want him, expect him to give me more responsibilities,” Winslow said of Spoelstra. “I’m not a guy who wants to come in here and be babied or whatever. I take all the responsibility and the accountability. I’m glad he’s trusting in me and believing in me, but I’ve got to go out there and do a better job.”
Tuesday: Spurs at Heat
When, where: 8 p.m., AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami.
TV, radio: TNT.
Series: Spurs lead 37-18.
Scouting report: When Heat center Hassan Whiteside woke up Monday morning his left ankle, which he rolled in the third quarter Sunday, was more swollen than he expected. Whiteside didn't practice Monday and the Heat will re-evaluate him before tipoff. The Spurs have won three straight vs. the Heat. San Antonio, tied for the best start in franchise history at 43-8, will be without forwards Matt Bonner (left calf strain), Tim Duncan (right knee soreness) and guard Manu Ginobili (surgery recovery).