The Heat’s predicament on the wings hasn’t reached crisis level, but it’s certainly getting closer to that.
Already without two starting wing players from part of last season’s second-half run, Miami now must deal with the temporary loss of Tyler Johnson, who is listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee after spraining his left ankle in Monday’s loss to Chicago.
That leaves Miami without three of its top six small forwards/shooting guards — Rodney McGruder (expected back in several weeks from a broken tibia), Dion Waiters (out for the season because of upcoming ankle surgery) and now Johnson, who was on crutches leaving The United Center on Monday.
The Heat, at this point, does not believe he needs an MRI. He will be re-evaluated before Friday’s game in Brooklyn.
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Johnson’s injury leaves Erik Spoelstra with four options to replace Waiters/Johnson: Inserting rookie Derrick Jones Jr. into the starting lineup, as he did in two games last week; starting Justise Winslow at shooting guard or small forward, with Josh Richardson playing the other position; starting Wayne Ellington (whom Spoelstra prefers coming off the bench); or shifting James Johnson to small forward and starting Kelly Olynyk at power forward in a big frontcourt.
Jones has only 15 days of NBA eligibility remaining as part of his two-way contract, but the Heat likes what it has seen.
When Jones signed with Miami on Dec. 31 after being cut by the Phoenix Suns earlier this season, Heat president Pat Riley had a simple message: “He said whenever I get to play, go out there with a lot of energy and impact the game on the defensive end and let the offense come to me.”
Jones has displayed athleticism and a defensive bent and said he believes his offensive game has improved. In 38 career games with Phoenix, he shot 5 for 17 from three to nine feet. With Miami, he’s 3 for 6 from that range.
“Before I came here, I wasn’t making as many shots as I am now,” he said. “Coaches have told me to keep my hands up higher and keep my hands on the ball before my feet are set so I’ll be able to shoot the ball right away. My game is at a different level and my confidence level is higher, and I feel a lot more comfortable playing the game now.”
His three-point game still needs work. He was 3 for 13 on threes in Phoenix and 1 for 4 here. From 11 feet to the three-point line, he was 5 for 16 in Phoenix, 0 for 1 here.
He said the Heat hasn’t told him or his agent if it has given any thought to converting his two-way contract into a standard contract, a move that would require releasing or trading a player.
“I’m not really thinking about it,” he said. “For every two-way player, that’s the hope and dream. But if it doesn’t happen, it’s not the end of the world. I know the team has faith in me and I have faith in the team.”
Inserting Winslow as a starter is another option. He has started 30 of his last 47 NBA games over two seasons, including 15 of 29 this season, but played as a reserve in his first two games back from a strained knee that sidelined him 14 games.
He said he is “very comfortable, for the most part” playing shooting guard. “I’m comfortable pretty much everywhere.”
Winslow has improved his shooting percentage from 40.6 (career) to 42.6 this season and his three-point shooting from 29.0 to 40.5 this season (17 for 42).
He had four points, six rebounds, four assists and a steal in 21 productive minutes against Chicago, with the Heat outscoring the Bulls by four points with Winslow in the game.
Regardless of who starts at shooting guard, Ellington stands to play the most minutes in Johnson’s absence.
He’s averaging a career-high 10.8 points and 25 minutes per game, and he entered Tuesday tied with Lou Williams for most made three-pointers in the league this season with 126, behind only Klay Thompson, James Harden, Eric Gordon and Paul George. His 40.5 percent accuracy on threes is 33rd in the league.
Ellington’s conditioning is excellent, and he said “I can play 48 minutes if I needed to, for sure. My mindset all summer long was to get into the best shape I’ve been in. Obviously, I didn’t know what it meant for me, but I was going to be ready for anything.”
Ellington started 13 games for the Heat last season and 125 games in a nine-year career but has come off the bench in 43 appearances this season, and Spoelstra might opt to keep him in that role.
“That’s for him to decide,” Ellington said. “I don’t ever get involved in that. I’m here to serve and do whatever I can for our team.”