Miami Heat guard Dion Waiters ready to accept Pat Riley’s challenge

ATLANTA — Pat Riley challenged Dion Waiters. And as expected, Waiters accepted that challenge.

After deciding to stand pat at the trade deadline for the first time in five seasons, Riley said he was intrigued to learn more about Miami’s roster as it played under the pressure of the playoff race over the final seven weeks of the regular season.

There’s still a lot to learn, especially considering that seven of the 15 players on the Heat’s current roster weren’t on the team last season.

Miami Heat guard Dion Waiters (11) shoots against the Atlanta Hawks during an NBA basketball game, Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Miami Heat guard Dion Waiters (11) shoots against the Atlanta Hawks during an NBA basketball game, Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)

“I want to see how they will operate now with real pressure,” Riley said minutes after the trade deadline passed on Thursday afternoon. “If making the playoffs is important then there will be some games that will have some pressure. If we can get those players we believe in that we think can be part of the future and perform at a high level during this time and make the playoffs, I think that’s what we’re looking for. That’s why we didn’t make trades for the sake of making trades.”

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Waiters is one of those players who will be playing under a microscope as the Heat continue to make their playoff push.

“He ain’t got to question me. He’s never got to question me,” Waiters said with a smirk Friday when asked about Riley’s comments. “At the end of the day I’m going to go out there, play my game, play hard and make sure that I leave it all out there for my teammates. If I play hard every night, knowing I played hard, I can sleep good at night.”

Waiters is in the first year of his two-year deal with the Heat, which includes a $3 million player option for next season. He will almost certainly opt out of that option this upcoming summer with big contract offers expected to come his way in free agency.

The 25-year-old guard is averaging 15.9 points on 41.8 percent shooting to go with 3.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists this season. But he’s taken his play to another level recently, averaging 21.5 points on 48.5 percent shooting from the field and 47.9 percent shooting from 3-point range over his past 13 games entering Saturday.

“He got off to a good start and then he got hurt,” Riley said of Waiters. “He didn’t shoot the ball well at the beginning but he played well. When he came back from that injury, Erik has constantly been coaching him on efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. Be a two-way player.

“We know he’s a big-game player. He has a lot of guts. He wants to take the shot at the end of the game. He’s a very gifted player. If he can put together another 25 games similar to what he has done the last 10 or 12, that’s a pretty good sample size  of what a guy can do. Does it impact winning? That’s an analytic that you have to figure out, his impact on winning.”

Over the past 17 games, Miami has recorded a 15-2 record. Waiters leads the team in plus-minus during this winning stretch, as the Heat have outscored opponents by 125 points with him on the court.

By comparison, the Heat player with the second-best plus-minus number during this stretch is Wayne Ellington at plus-97.

“Pat is one of those guys that knows how to motivate in a lot of different ways,” Waiters said. “He keeps you motivated. He always throws different challenges out there at you. Just like [Erik Spoelstra] do. I expect that already. That’s all Pat is doing, probably trying to motivate us.”

Riley is also trying to evaluate whether Waiters is worth keeping this upcoming summer. Waiters could command $12 million per season or more in free agency if he’s able to sustain his recent level of production.

Money will surely impact Waiters’ free agent decision. But he can envision Miami as his long-term home.

“It’s Miami, my son love it. Why not?” Waiters said. “We’re going to finish out strong and let everything else take care of itself.”

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