What’s so strange is how normal it seemed Wednesday, a franchise like the Heat — heavily invested in experience — entrusting rookies Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson to swinging its second-round series.
They helped shave the deficit from 13 to one before running out of razor.
“We’re young guys that play really hard, so we just tried to bring energy, change the game a little bit,” Richardson said after the 99-91 loss to the Raptors. “We went on a little run.”
They’ll need to provide even more Friday for the hobbled Heat — now down 3-2 — to extend its postseason run. Even if the Heat don’t, this has been invaluable for “Rook 1” and “Rook 2,” drafted 10th and 40th overall. It may prove the most productive aspect of this postseason.
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Richardson (326) and Winslow (266) rank first and second in playoff minutes among NBA rookies; Indiana’s Myles Turner and Charlotte’s Frank Kaminsky, since eliminated, are third (197) and fourth (190). Of the top 10 picks, only Detroit’s Stanley Johnson (eighth, 81 minutes), Kaminsky (ninth, 190) and Winslow (10th, 266) were on playoff qualifiers. Toronto’s Norman Powell (175 minutes) is the only second-round pick other than Richardson to play more than 12 minutes.
Dwyane Wade played 510 minutes as a rookie.
How much will this help?
“Oh, a lot,” Wade said. “They might not even know it yet. This level right here is so different from that regular-season level.”
Wade said rookies who play in the playoffs tend to dominate the next summer league because “it will seem so easy to them.”
“There’s nothing better than getting playoff minutes, especially the games that we’ve played, three overtime games,” Wade said. “I don’t know how much tighter your butt cheeks can get than this series.”
They do seem to know it.
Richardson spoke of maturing faster while learning how to endure more intense scouting.
“It makes you want to diversify your game, so you can find ways to get around it,” he said. “You know what to work on.”
While Richardson’s toughest challenge has been physical — he revealed Wednesday that his two sore shoulders would have kept him out in the regular season — Winslow’s trial has been more emotional, as a minutes decline culminated in sitting entirely in Game 3.
“I know we lost Game 2, so part of that was probably me defensively,” Winslow said.
He admitted to being “kind of mad” about the benching, his first at any level: “If we would have won the game, I would have still been upset, but it would have been a different feeling, [like] maybe this is the right way to go.”
After Erik Spoelstra called Winslow late Monday and met Tuesday morning to explain that he meant to play the Duke product — but Hassan Whiteside’s in-game injury mangled the rotation plan — Winslow channeled that into “wanting to make the most of the opportunity, because I knew how it felt to miss out.”
“He’s mature enough, emotionally stable enough, to get it,” Spoelstra said.
Winslow has gotten 64 minutes over the past two games, his highest two-game postseason total, and his defense down the stretch in Game 4 was dynamic enough that even he — his own harshest critic — said “there weren’t many mistakes.” While he wasn’t pleased with the space he gave Terrence Ross in that same Game 4 (“I should know better by now”), his overall playoff defensive work has been sound.
According to SportVU data, he and Richardson are holding playoff assignments 5.7 and 5.4 percentages below what they typically shoot, first and third on the Heat. That’s somewhat made up for offensive struggles; Winslow, while up from 42.2 to 43.9 percent, is 2 of 14 from three-point range, while Richardson is hitting a healthy 37.5 percent from deep but has dipped from 45.2 to 36.4 percent overall.
“It’s hard to do during the season but, as far as getting better offensively, I know exactly what it is now,” Winslow said. “I know how my team likes to play, I know the sets we like to run, the spots I’m going to be in.”
He believes he’ll be “more advanced” than other rookies in his class. “It’s definitely an advantage playing this deep into this season,” he said.
When he wasn’t named to the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend in Toronto back in February, Winslow quipped that he would gladly take the playoff check rather than one for that exhibition. But he’s getting more than money.
“Yeah, yeah,” Winslow said. “You dream of being an All-Star, but the biggest thing you dream of is being a champion, and this is more the process. As far as becoming a star, or offensively a superstar, I mean, that’ll come. But right now I’m focused on this and trying to win.”
Will it help next season?
“You never know, but the way I look at it, is it helps them for the next game,” Spoelstra said. “Anytime as a young player you can feel the importance of winning and losing, and games matter … A lot of times high draft picks come into a [situation] where you’re not playing for anything. Those are dangerous habits to get into, for multiple years. These guys came into a situation where everything matters.”
Like Friday night.