The Heat saw the vast potential of a Hassan Whiteside/James Johnson starting power rotation pairing in the final week of last season, with those two combining for 120 points and 69 rebounds in pressure-packed victories against Washington, Cleveland and the Wizards again.
Throw in the 17 combined assists from Johnson in the final two games of that final week, and there was every reason to believe Johnson — who replaced injured Luke Babbitt in the starting lineup late last season — would be a dynamic starting running mate alongside Whiteside.
Nearly 10 months later, the Heat hopes that Whiteside/Johnson combo reignites over the second half of the season. Whiteside has had several exceptional games in recent weeks, and Johnson has played well at times, but the two haven’t quite replicated — as a tandem — what they achieved in the second half of last season.
Last season, when Whiteside and Johnson played together, Miami outscored teams by 104 points in 447 minutes. That was Miami’s third-best two-man pairing in terms of plus/minus.
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This season, when Whiteside and Johnson play together, the Heat has been outscored by 13 points in 158 minutes. That ranks 76th among Heat two-man pairings.
They started together for the ninth time this season in the Heat’s 95-88 win against Dallas on Monday, with Miami improving to 5-4 in those games. They’re expected to start together again Wednesday night in Cleveland.
It has been an uneven season for Johnson, who is down in points per game from a season ago (12.8 to 10.2) and three-point field-goal percentage (29.5, compared with 34 last year) while playing comparable minutes (26.9 this season, 27.4 last season). His rebounds are up from 4.9 to 5.0 per game, and he’s shooting 47.6 percent overall, barely below last year’s 47.9.
One difference is that Johnson hasn’t been as aggressive offensively. He’s averaging 8.4 field-goal attempts per game, compared with 10.1 last season.
When he sees Heat president Pat Riley, “Pat says, ‘Shoot the ball and be aggressive and be the guy who we brought back!’” Johnson revealed this week.
He said coach Erik Spoelstra and teammates, including Goran Dragic, have also have encouraged him to shoot more.
So why hasn’t he?
He said sometimes he believes the Heat is better served by him “swinging the ball to the other side and make the defense have to work” to defend the extra pass. “The four men [power forwards] on this team have to sacrifice.”
Still, he admits there have been some losses where he wishes he had looked for his shot more. “Those are the ones that really haunt you,” he said.
Johnson noted there are some shots Spoelstra doesn’t want him taking, such as “pull-up transition threes.”
Though Johnson’s assists are up from a year ago (4.1, compared with 3.6), he said he’s getting the team into offense “a lot less,” which has been an adjustment.
“I am playing a whole different role,” Johnson said, with Richardson, Justise Winslow and Tyler Johnson also handling some ball-handling duties to give Dragic a breather. “When more guys get back [such as Rodney McGruder], I’ll have a different role.”
Johnson said he hasn’t felt any pressure from the four-year, $60 million contract that he signed in July but feels increased responsibility as one of the team’s three captains.
Spoelstra likes the chemistry between Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo on the second unit and said he wants to stick with Johnson starting.
That starting group of Whiteside, James Johnson, Richardson, Tyler Johnson and Dragic was a plus 11 against Dallas but has been outscored by 25 as a group this season.
The question is whether Johnson and Whiteside can both fill the boxscore in tandem as they did in the pressure-packed final week last April against Washington (Whiteside had 30 points, 12 rebounds; Johnson 15 and 11), Cleveland (Whiteside had 23 and 18, Johnson 16 points and nine assists) and Washington again (Whiteside had 24, 18 and Johnson 12, 8 and 8).
Whiteside was at his best in Monday’s win, closing with 25 points, 14 rebounds and a block, while shooting 10 for 15 from the field and 6 for 7 from the line in 26 highly efficient minutes.
“They couldn’t do anything with the big fella in the paint,” Richardson said.
Whiteside was in a good frame of mind Monday night after his Sunday chat with Spoelstra.
“Me and coach Spo spoke for a real long time,” he said. It was like an hour talk. I think it was great. It was a really great talk between us. We both came better out of it.”
He said they discussed “different things, different challenges he has for me, both of what we’ve seen out there.”
He said Spoelstra wants “me being more vocal. Talking to my teammates more, just being more of a leader. I have never been much of a rah-rah guy. I’m trying to be more of a leader for the team and talk to guys more because they respect what I say.”
How much of that talk fueled him Monday?
“It did a lot,” he said. “I slept on it. I thought about it a whole lot.”