Miami Heat’s injuries putting Rodney McGruder to the test in rookie season

Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks posts up Rodney McGruder #17 of the Miami Heat during a game at American Airlines Arena on December 6, 2016 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks posts up Rodney McGruder #17 of the Miami Heat during a game at American Airlines Arena on December 6, 2016 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

CLEVELAND — As Rodney McGruder sat in front of his locker with his left foot in a bucket of ice after Wednesday’s loss to the Hawks, he insisted he was fine.

The Heat guard had rolled his left ankle a few hours earlier and played through it with a visible limp until coach Erik Spoelstra felt it was best to take him out late in the game. McGruder finished with 11 points, five rebounds, five assists and two steals in Wednesday’s loss to the Hawks.

“Rodney didn’t want to come out of the game,” Spoelstra said. “But as it went on with fatigue and everything, I didn’t think he was moving great like he normally does. But wow, he’s tough. He’s tough. He rolled that in the first half and he was able to still compete and play.”

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That toughness is one of the reasons McGruder earned the Heat’s final roster spot over Beno Udrih and Briante Weber during the preseason.

And it’s one of the reasons Spoelstra feels confident enough to ask the 6-foot-4 McGruder to defend bigger superstars like Carmelo Anthony (6-8, 240).

With forwards Justise Winslow and James Johnson among the five injured players who did not travel with the Heat for their three-game road trip, McGruder is being asked to defend small forwards. Miami has just nine players available on the trip.

“Just go out there, have fun and compete,” McGruder said of the challenge. “That’s all I think about. Like I don’t think too much into things. It’s just how I’ve always been. I just feel like go out there and give it my all. Just try to defend as best as I can.”

To make it even tougher on McGruder, the Heat are facing some of the best small forwards in the NBA during this stretch. The Heat faced Anthony on Tuesday, and will see Cleveland’s LeBron James (6-8, 250) on Friday and Chicago’s Jimmy Butler (6-7, 231) on Saturday.

Anthony finished with 35 points on 13-of-27 shooting against McGruder and the Heat on Tuesday.

“Welcome to this league,” Spoelstra said. “It’s for competitors only and that’s why Rodney is here. He’s a great competitor and when he had to fight and scrap to make this roster, those were the qualities we saw in summer league, we saw in Sioux Falls, he showed us in training camp, he showed us in the preseason, and now he’s making us play him.”

McGruder has played in 21 of 22 games this season and has already made nine starts as a rookie. The 25-year-old is averaging 8.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 31.9 minutes per game over his past 10 games.

With the Heat’s roster limited because of injuries, McGruder is one of just three Heat players who has been healthy for every game this season. And he’s doing everything he can to make the most of his opportunity.

“It’s been a great learning experience,” McGruder said. “It’s been a great early learning experience. I’m a rookie and getting these challenges. It’s been fun, though, a lot of fun.”

As for McGruder’s sore ankle, Spoelstra said it will need to be monitored before Friday’s game against the Cavaliers. McGruder is listed as questionable for the contest with a sprained left ankle.

But with five Heat players already out due to injury, McGruder said he isn’t going to let a rolled ankle keep him out.

“I’m good. It comes with basketball actually, you know,” McGruder said. “I hurt it a lot in my career. So I’m good. I’ll play for sure Friday.”

That’s the toughness that McGruder is starting to become known for.

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