NEW YORK – The box score did not tell the story, at least not the story Heat coach Erik Spoelstra wanted to tell about his underappreciated forward, rookie Rodney McGruder.
McGruder’s numbers were pedestrian in Miami’s victory at Milwaukee on Wednesday: 10 points, six rebounds, three assists and just 4-of-13 from the field.
But Spoelstra continued to praise the 6-foot-5 rookie who survived the final cut during training camp and now is a fixture in the Heat’s starting lineup.
“When you say this (game) is for competitors that defines Rodney McGruder,” Spoelstra said Wednesday. “It felt like he had 22 points. It felt like he had nine assists on his catch and goes and that’s why stats are so deceiving. It’s about making winning plays.
“We gave him the proverbial symbolic game ball after this game.”
This isn’t football. Game balls are not tossed around after every game. But Spoelstra’s point was well taken. Hassan Whiteside (23 points, 16 rebounds), James Johnson (20 points), Wayne Ellington (17) and Goran Dragic (16), might have had more noticeable numbers, but McGruder was as much a part of the Heat’s 12th consecutive win as any of the above and deserved to be noticed even if was through symbolic gesture.
For the second consecutive game McGruder spent more time on the floor than any player on the Heat, registering 36 minutes after playing 39 minutes two nights earlier at Minnesota. And he was seemingly involved in every 50-50 play and continued his knack for being in the right place at the right time, like in against the Timberwolves when he was all alone under the basket for a crucial put back on an offensive rebound with 2:54 to play.
And against Milwaukee, seven of McGruder’s points came in a five-minute span of the third quarter when Miami was being challenged by the Bucks.
“Rodney’s amazing,” Dragic said after McGruder scored his season (career) high of 15 points in the two-point win against Minnesota.
“Those 50-50 balls he’s always in the right spot. To have this kind of player on your team it’s so nice. He’s doing everything most of the guys would not do, defend, get the loose balls and he’s making shots too. That’s huge.”
McGruder, 25, is in the top 10 among rookies in five categories, including No. 2 with 26.1 minutes per game. His 6.1 scoring average is 12th. He has started 36 games, third most on the Heat behind Dragic and Whiteside.
Not bad for a guy who was just looking for a spot on the bench when the Heat were cutting down to 15 players.
“I’ve never seen somebody put their nose on the ball every possession like that,” Whiteside said. “He’s really hungry. This means a lot to him.
“Ever since we called him up from the jungle he came in and he’s been eatin.’”
Whiteside chuckled at what came out of his mouth. But it makes sense, sort of. McGruder has taken advantage of the opportunity given when he survived the final cut of the preseason to make an NBA roster for the first time after spending two seasons in the D-League.
And McGruder worked his way into the D-League after going undrafted out of Kansas State in 2013, playing in Hungry and being cut by Oklahoma City and Boston.
“I’m just trying to have fun,” the soft-spoken McGruder said. “Coach has put me in great spots where I can succeed and my teammates are doing a great job of finding me as well.
“I just try to go out there and compete, just try to make the plays I can make to help the team whatever it is. Just bring that effort and energy.”