Heat Check

A star took over for the Rockets on Wednesday. Can J-Rich become one for the Heat?

Miami Heat guard Josh Richardson goes to the basket against Houston Rockets forward Luc Mbah a Moute and forward PJ Tucker during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Wednesday, February 7, 2018.
Miami Heat guard Josh Richardson goes to the basket against Houston Rockets forward Luc Mbah a Moute and forward PJ Tucker during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Wednesday, February 7, 2018. dsantiago@miamiherald.com

Five takeaways from the Heat’s 109-101 loss to the Houston Rockets on Wednesday at AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami’s fifth consecutive defeat:

1. There are no moral victories in games like this when you lose to teams like the Magic (17-36), Kings (17-36) and Nets (19-37) on your homecourt too. The Heat (29-26) are barely holding onto the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference with Detroit (27-26) and Philadelphia (26-25) closing the gap on them.

Miami’s final three games before the All-Star break are no cakewalk: Friday at home against Milwaukee (30-23), at Toronto (37-16) next Tuesday and at the 76ers a day later. There’s a real possibility the reeling Heat could go into the break on an eight-game losing streak with a .500 and on the outside looking in on a playoff spot.

So is there a growing sense of urgency in the locker room?

“There always is a sense of urgency,” point guard Goran Dragic said. “It’s not like we’re relaxing right now. We had a tough stretch. We still have three games left before the All-Star break. We need to continue. Nobody is going to help us. It’s us, 12 guys here and the coaching staff. We have to figure out this thing. There’s still a lot of games left, but like you said now they’re getting closer and closer.”

Said Josh Richardson: “It doesn’t take [five straight losses] to feel that way. I think we felt like that way after the first loss and the second loss. And I think it’s just building a little bit. We can’t keep coming out and losing games that we should be winning. But I think tonight we did a good job of competing. But I think if we played like we did today, we win our last game [against the Magic].”

Dragic
Alonzo Mourning, left, Miami Heat vice president of player programs, presents guard Goran Dragic his NBA All-Star Game jersey during a ceremony before the start of an NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018, in Miami. Dragic will replace injured Kevin Love in 2018 NBA All-Star Game. Wilfredo Lee AP

2. On a night the Heat needed a lift with Wayne Ellington and Kelly Olynyk out, Richardson scored a career-high 30 points (on 11 of 20 shooting) and made a career-high seven three pointers to help pace the offense along with Dragic (30 points, six assists).

It’s time to recognize how much Richardson has grown and is on the verge of becoming the Heat’s best player.

Not only does he do his part every night on the defensive end as the Heat’s best defender and one of the best in the league, but since Dec. 1 he’s averaging 16.2 points on 49.4 percent shooting from the field and 46.6 percent from beyond the arc. He’s also averaged 3.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists (1.6 turnovers), 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks per contest. He’s also become the Heat’s leading scorer in the fourth quarter (4.9 points per game).

Now, coach Erik Spoelstra said, it’s just a matter of getting Richardson to be as aggressive as he was Wednesday even when the Heat’s roster is at full strength.

“He was probably the only guy that we could put on either Harden or Paul that offered any kind of real resistence,” Spoelstra said. “He did this at 39 minutes a game on both ends of the court. That shows what J-Rich is capable of. We needed every part of it. He understood because we were undermanned he had to come out more aggressive. So my challenge to him now is even when we’re at full strength to play with that kind of assertiveness, that kind of aggressiveness and take on that kind of responsibility for our basketball team. He was terrific on both ends tonight.”

James Harden
Houston Rockets guard James Harden, left, looks for an open teammate past Miami Heat guard Josh Richardson during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018, in Miami. The Rockets defeated the Heat 109-101. Wilfredo Lee AP

3. The Heat had no answer for James Harden. The league’s leading scorer lit Miami up with 41 points (13 of 25 shooting), four rebounds, six asssits, three steals and a block in 36 minutes. And when it mattered down the stretch he took over scoring 14 points in the fourth quarter including back-to-back threes to turn a 101-94 lead into a 13-point cushion.

The Heat threw just about everyone they could on Harden: Richardson, James Johnson, Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo. There’s probably a highlight or two of him burning every single one to the basket.

“He’s whatever you want to call it, a three-level player,” Spoelstra said. “He has the ability to draw fouls, so that’s a four-dimensional player. He can get you at the rim, he can get you midrange, he can you from three, draw fouls and facilitate. And then when the game is on the line that’s probably when he was at his best tonight.”

Said Richardson of guarding Harden: “It’s tough. James is one of the best guards in the world and I mean he knows how to get fouled, he knows how to score, he knows how to playmake for his teammates. The game just seems to come very easy to him. It seems like he has the game slowed down a lot more than pretty much anybody. So just watching him play, I give him a lot of props. He’s a tough guard.”

Tyler Johnson
Miami Heat guard Tyler Johnson passes the ball against Houston Rockets guard Gerald Green during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Wednesday, February 7, 2018. David Santiago dsantiago@miamiherald.com

4. Remember when the Brothers Johnson was a great thing?

It feels like an enternity ago James Johnson and Tyler Johnson were coming off the bench and leading the Heat to wins as a dynamic duo. Wednesday night was another struggle. JJ finished with nine points (4 of 12 shooting) two rebounds, three assists and two turnovers in 36 minutes. Tyler had three points (1 of 7 shooting), six rebounds, three assists, one steal and three turnovers in 34 minutes.

Tyler still doesn’t look right coming off a five game absence for an ankle injury. He’s shooting 32.2 percent from the field and 31.4 percent from three point range in the seven games since his return. JJ is a team-worst minus 60 over the Heat’s last eight games. Tyler is next at minus-40.

In 665 minutes together this season, the Heat has been outscored by 40 points when Johnson and Johnson have been on the floor. Last season, the Heat was plus-45 in the 1,484 minutes they played together.

“Tyler is a winning player,” Spoelstra said. “He makes winning plays. When he’s around the ball that’s when he’s at his best – when you actually feel his imapct on both ends of the court. It’s not necessarily about the stats. We say it all the time – it’s not about that final line in the boxscore. He’s a proficient offensive player. That will come.”

Hassan Whiteside
Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside shoots over Houston Rockets center Clint Capela during the first quarter of a game at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Wednesday, February 7, 2018. David Santiago dsantiago@miamiherald.com

5. So much for seeing of more Bam Adebayo and Hassan Whiteside together. Even though Spoelstra said he wanted to see more of it, the Heat’s two traditional big men did not play a single minute together on Wednesday.

Whiteside finished with 16 points,17 rebounds and an assist in 33 minutes (only the fourth time this season he’s played at least 33 minutes). Adebayo had five points, five rebounds, two assists and two blocks in 15 minutes (he’s averaged 23 minutes a game since Jan. 9).

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