MIAMI — Tip-off is still 80 minutes away at AmericanAirlines Arena, but head upstairs and you’ll find another basketball game on the Heat’s practice court.
This game gets physical and it gets competitive. And it’s between Heat players.
Before most home games — when it’s not on the second night of a back-to-back set — a group of Miami’s bench players take part in a few 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 pick-up games. They play two or three games up to seven with made shots either counting for one or two points, and they play using a full court.
“It’s crazy,” forward James Johnson said upon returning to the locker room after watching a few of his teammates play pick-up basketball before the Heat’s home win over the Warriors on Jan. 23. “I was just upstairs. I didn’t even play today and I still wanted to go upstairs just to be around that atmosphere. There’s a lot of trash talking going on. There’s a lot of personal vendettas as in ‘I don’t want you to score, you couldn’t score on me the whole week’ or whatever. And then all of a sudden you get up there and play 2-on-2 and you got to back it up.”
With an off day Tuesday, those competitive games are expected to be part of Wednesday’s pregame work prior to the Heat’s matchup against the 76ers at AmericanAirlines Arena. Center Willie Reed, and forwards James Johnson, Udonis Haslem, Luke Babbitt and Okaro White are among the players who are regular participants this season, and Derrick Williams was part of that group before he was released in early February.
“That goes back all the way to the championship culture,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of his team’s pregame ritual. “All of our teams have done that. For a long time that was James Jones, Rashard Lewis, UD and Mike Miller up there playing 2 on 2. Years before that, it was Mike Doleac and (Jason) Kapono. It’s always been part of the culture.”
Haslem confirmed Spoelstra’s statement. During the Big Three era, Haslem, Jones, Lewis and Miller played before games to stay sharp.
“Based on the night, our rotation, our minutes, sometimes you play, sometimes you don’t,” Haslem said. “So we all started coming up here playing 2-on-2 full court to get some work in and get some conditioning and get in a rhythm and get a feel for the game. It’s just a tradition that’s carried on. Obviously, none of those guys are here now so I’ve been carrying that tradition on by myself the last couple of years with the new guys that we have here.”
These informal games are productive, too.
Haslem has played in just 15 of the Heat’s 60 games this season, but the conditioning and physicality of the pregame pick-up games have helped him to stay ready for whenever Spoelstra calls his name.
“Sometimes coach just throws me out there,” Haslem said. “I’ve been up here playing 2-on-2, so when I get on the floor I’m in a decent rhythm. And I don’t get tired during the games because I keep my conditioning going up here.”
For White, the games have helped him gain confidence against NBA talent, specifically pointing to 1-on-1 games versus Johnson. White made his NBA debut on Jan. 19 and has already found a way to become a consistent part of Miami’s rotation.
“It’s helped a lot,” White said of the pick-up games. “A lot of times, me and James play 1-on-1 since I’ve been down here. The games are very competitive between me and him. I think he’s helped me and I’ve helped him. It’s been so competitive, they’ve even told us to stop a little bit – to stop playing 1-on-1. Not necessarily physical, not in a bad way, just going hard at each other.”
Reed credits the pick-up games for his rapid offensive improvement this season. The 2-on-2, 3-on-3 format gives the 26-year-old center a chance to play with the ball in his hands in isolation situations.
“It gives us the opportunity to lock in and use that to get better and be able to do stuff that we might not get to do in the game,” Reed said. “You can work on different offensive aspects of the game just to get better.”‘
The pick-up games have helped Johnson make better and quicker decisions. When playing on the Heat’s practice court, he tries to limit himself to three dribbles before either shooting or passing.
“It’s three dribbles, two dribbles sometimes,” Johnson said. “That’s all the dribbles you’re allowed. That also helps you in games to get off the ball. You make a move and it don’t work, get off it. You don’t want to keep pounding the rock.”
But underneath all the work and conditioning that goes on in these games, there’s some fun. With the pick-up format providing a less rigid structure, players have an opportunity to show off aspects of their games that usually go unused in the NBA’s ultra-structured format.
When asked for the most surprising thing they’ve seen in this season’s pick-up games, every player pointed to Haslem’s Stephen Curry-like range. Reed said Haslem “has been very surprising from 3-point range and in transition.”
“UD has so much more stuff that nobody knows about,” Johnson said. “His 2-on-2, 3-on-3 game, you wouldn’t know that he could dribble the ball that way. You wouldn’t know that he hits pull-up transition threes. You get guys that can go up there and they’re not worried about being pulled out, so they’re taking every shot with confidence.”
Over Haslem’s 14-year NBA career, he’s made just three 3-pointers. That doesn’t stop him from showing off his shooting ability in pick-up games.
“I pop threes in their face all the time,” Haslem said.
But not every player on the Heat’s roster is allowed to play in these games. It’s restricted to reserves.
Rookie Rodney McGruder has asked to play, but teammates haven’t allowed him in yet because he’s already made 43 starts this season.
“We only let real ones play,” Reed shouted at McGruder with a smile.