There have been many benchmark delights in this successful Miami Heat season, from the top on down.
We have seen Pat Riley’s resilience and determination to not use LeBron James’ departure as a crutch or excuse. After one aberrant season on the playoff sideline he has the Heat retooled and thinking big again.
We have seen maybe Erik Spoelstra’s best coaching job, weathering the loss of Chris Bosh, changing the offense, tinkering with the pace, incorporating new faces young and old into the rotation.
We have seen the full blossom of Hassan Whiteside, who finished third in NBA defensive player of the voting Monday but has been as good as anybody the second half of the season and earned the large summer payday that’s coming.
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We have seen the career of Dwyane Wade, the South Florida treasure now 34 and still an all-star, continue to adapt and to age with graceful brilliance.
But none of those things is as surprising as this:
The Miami Heat (of all teams), relying on rookies and trusting youth.
This is not the Riley Way, or hasn’t been.
It is the youth makeover that has been different, and given this team and season a feeling of fresh air, a feeling of future.
Top rookie Justise Winslow and second-round pick Josh Richardson have been a revelation, with defense-first impact that has earned both a major role.
We saw that during the season, when their combined average of 49.9 minutes per game was second in the NBA to Denver among teams with two rookies playing the most.
We sure saw it again Sunday in Game 1 of the playoffs, in the rout of Charlotte, when the two combined for 62 minutes – playing off the bench, but playing starters’ time.
Richardson, a 6-6 shooting guard, led everybody with 35 minutes, and had five rebounds, three assists, a pair of 3-point baskets and eight points.
“I bring a bulldog mentality,” he said. “Play every possession as hard as I can.”
Winslow, a 6-6 small forward, played 27 minutes Sunday with eight points on 4-for-6 shooting, and four rebounds.
“Learning something new every day,” he described his rookie year. “Everybody can play [in the NBA], but you realize the elite guys are on a different level mentally. They see things before it happens. Seeing that first-hand has been cool.”
Include Whiteside at 26 and Tyler Johnson at 23 and Miami has its brightest nucleus of young players in many years.
Wade, in his 13th Miami season, is enjoying a mentor’s role that has invigorated him. Sunday, Winslow mimicked Wade’s Euro-step move for a basket, pointed at the Heat bench in acknowledgment, and Wade literally danced with delight. Of course everything is fun when you are winning a playoff game by 32 points. But the whole season has been fun for Wade, finally seeing a next-gen commitment from his franchise.
There is a passing-of-the-torch feeling at play.
As Winslow said Monday of his mentor Wade: “He knows his time is winding down and that I can have a very bright future in this league.”
Wade in turn calls Winslow “a student of the game,” says, “I love that rookie!”
The experience has been different for Wade.
“Yeah it’s not very often since I’ve been here that we’ve had a lot of rookies who can come in and do this,” the Heat all-time great said Monday, after practice. “They’ve meant a lot. Justise came in with that NBA body and we knew right away he could play, [as] a very good defender defending other team’s best player. And Josh Richardson, surprising everyone the second half of the season with his ability to shoot and defend as well. Josh came along slowly and then – out of nowhere!”
The Heat’s only NBA All-Rookie first teamer since Wade in 2004 has been Michael Beasley in ’09, and it’s fair to say he flamed out.
As a non-starter Winslow might not make the all-rookie first team to be announced in May, but you get the sense he and Richardson are built to last. Though Winslow just turned 20 and Richardson is only 22, they are the anti-Johnny Manziels. Mature. Serious about the game.
Winslow has the bloodlines. His father played at Houston on the famed Hakeem Olajuwon/Clyde Drexler teams and had a long pro career mostly overseas. The son came NBA-ready out of Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke factory.
Richardson, a former Tennessee Vol, also is of sound stock. His father is a retired Oklahoma City firefighter and his mother a former Air Force lieutenant colonel who now is an ordained Baptist minister.
Both rookies are comfortable in a role that doesn’t always lend itself to the kind of offense that attracts all-rookie votes. Unselfishness defines both. They’ve bought in.
“You saw that with Golden State last year,” as Winslow said. “Guys accepting their roles.”
They have had the luxury to tune their defensive games because, “They don’t have the burden to score ‘X’ amount points,” as Spoelstra said. “They’ve embraced every challenge that was given to them. They’ve played with great defensive energy. They focus on making winning plays.”
Added Wade: “Our young guys, they’re not scared of the moment. We need them to not play like rookies, and the special ones at this time of year do not.”
Imagine Rookies playing a major role … in the playoffs … for the Miami Heat.
Such an uncommon and nourishing sight for this franchise and its fans:
Read Greg’s Random Evidence blog daily at MiamiHerald.com and follow on Twitter @gregcote.