Heat Check

Five takeaways from Heat-Spurs: LaMarcus Aldridge ‘not moving like a robot anymore’

Five takeaways from the Miami Heat’s 117-100 loss to the visiting and still unbeaten San Antonio Spurs, who were playing without superstar Kawhi Leonard and point guard Tony Parker, and still took it to the Heat rather easily.

1. LaMarcus Aldridge is playing like he deserved that three-year, $72 million contract extension he signed in October. Aldridge, 32, was on the trade market back in July, but he’s back and playing at an All-Star level, something he wasn’t a year ago. He was every bit the reason why the Spurs left AmericanAirlines Arena 4-0 Wednesday.

Aldridge came in averaging 24.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.7 blocks per game. Wednesday, he scored 11 of the Spurs’ first 22 points and dominated inside and outside the paint, finishing with 31 points (on 12-of-20 shooting) and seven rebounds in 38 minutes.

At times he was unguardable. Even with James Johnson and Justise Winslow draped all over him, Aldridge was still able to bury shots. If this is the Aldridge we see in the playoffs, the Spurs really could challenge the Warriors once Leonard returns.

“This is more of who the player everybody saw for however many years he was in Portland,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Big time post scorer. A big time matchup problem in today’s NBA because you don’t have that many back-to-the-basket guys who can actually put the ball in the basket, and do it against different coverages. He’s a guy who can shoot the ball, but can keep you honest. All the veteran savviness of shot fakes, he’s seen every coverage that there possibly is. You can’t ever understate when players change teams, and change systems, that there always is an adjustment period. It may not be as quickly as some think it should be, but this is the guy we saw in Portland.”

Said Johnson: “He is not moving like a robot anymore. He is comfortable with what is going on.”

2. Did we mention the Spurs shot 55.3 percent from the field? While the rest of the NBA is focused on launching threes like the Warriors and Rockets, Gregg Popovich’s team is interested in going the other direction. They came in averaging 17.7 three-point attempts per game – four fewer than the rest of the league – and finished 10-of-17 Wednesday from beyond the arc. Letting Aldridge, Pau Gasol and others hit the baskets they can make has been the focus.

“It sure felt like [we were scrambling],” Spoelstra said. “At the beginning of the game, they set the tempo with post-ups, getting paint catches, pick-and-rols. We just gave up a ton of easy ones, and now they are in their rhythm and then you have to react. Then, Rudy Gay started to get going as well and their three-point shooters took it over from there. We didn’t get a handle on our defense for basically the entire game. That’s a credit to what they do and how they execute, how they have purpose to every single possesion.”

The Spurs came in ranked sixth in NBA in points in the paint (51.3) while the Heat was seventh with 50.7 points in the paint. Defensively, San Antonio was fifth in the paint points allowed (40.7) while the Heat – missing Hassan Whiteside for the third straight game – came in 27th (52.0). San Antonio and the Heat each finished with 44 points in the paint, but San Antonio held the Heat to 45.7 percent shooting from the field and 9-of-26 (34.6 percent) from three-point range. The Spurs also led the Heat in points in the paint 40-28 after three quarters – when they pulled away for good.

3. Tyler Johnson had a nice bounce back performance after a rough start and Josh Richardson’s game bounced the other way. This is the kind of up-and-down play we can probably expect all season from the Heat’s young players, who are trying to establish themselves as consistent threats in this league – possibly the hardest thing to do for role players.

After going 1-for-9 on Monday night and getting off to a very slow start shooting for the season (8-of-27), Tyler Johnson scored 13 points Wednesday night before we could blink. His steal and dunk with 10:38 left in the first half put the Heat up 35-33. The Heat, though, could never expand on that lead or make it larger than three points. Johnson, 25, finished with a team-high 23 points (7-of-13 shooting), three assists and three three-pointers in 33 minutes off the bench.

“He competed hard in the last couple of games,” Spoelstra said. “It’s not always about whetehr the ball is going in. It’s how you are impacting the game in a lot of different ways. He was locked in. He’s been locked in. This is the way he was playing all throughout training camp and preseason. The ball just wasn’t going in the first couple of games. He was certainly locked in tonight.”

Richardson, meanwhile, didn’t score in the first half and didn’t hit his first field goal until 6:46 remained in the fourth quarter. After scoring 21 points in Monday’s win over the Hawks, he missed his first seven shots and was frustrated by foul trouble all night long before finally fouling out with 2:06 left to play. Richardson, 24, finished with six points (on 1-of-8 shooting), five rebounds and three assists in 33 minutes. If he’s going to a legitimate threat at small forward to help the Heat really contend he’s got to have more nights like Monday and fewer nights like the one he had Wednesday.

“You just have to be mentally tough,” Richardson said. “We’ve got another game to play in two days.”

4. Bam Adebayo had his share of positive moments in his first career start. The one curveball coach Erik Spoelstra threw at Popovich Wednesday was starting Adebayo instead of Jordan Mickey, who made the last two starts at center with Whiteside out. Adebayo hardly dominated in his near 20 minutes worth of work, but he had his flashes. He scored his four points on a pair of alley-oop slams, grabbed eight rebounds and had a nice block in the first quarter on Dejounte Murray.

Either way, Wednesday’s start was an opportunity to get throw into the fire and learn while having to defend two of the best paint scorers in the league in Aldridge and Gasol.

“I thought his minutes were solid,” Spoelstra said. “That’s a big ask on our part to throw him in there to start against a multi-year All-Star, a guy that has been playing extremely well this year and has a lot of elements to his game that keep you honest. I thought Bam gave us some energy, athleticism. It certainly was not an indictment on Jordan [Mickey]. This could be until Hassan [Whiteside] is out. It could be a matchup thing. I really wanted to try and leverage some speed and quickness with a starting lineup, but, in hindsight we weren’t able to take advantage of that. I thought he did some good things.”

5. Dion Waiters may ask to never practice again. With his sore left ankle bothering him, the Heat made sure Waiters, 25, didn’t practice Tuesday and he only went through light drills on Wednesday at shootaround. This is probably going to be the way things go all season to make sure he can play in games.

Waiters played well in the first half, scoring a team-high 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting. But he missed all three shots he took in the second half and finished with 17 points, two rebounds and five assists in 40 minutes. Waiters, by the way, gets a $1.1 bonus if he plays in 70 games this season.

Waiters’ backcourt mate Goran Dragic had a better night, scoring 20 points on 9-of-15 shooting in 36 minutes. James Johnson added 21 points, nine rebounds and four assists, but had a tough night defending Aldridge. Johnson scored 14 of his points in the fourth quarter while the Heat was down double-digits.

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