Miami Heat forward James Johnson to receive first start of season for injured Luke Babbitt

Miami’s James Johnson gets the start tonight, his first of the season, in a crucial game against the Hornets. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

CHARLOTTE – After coming off the bench for 71 games, James Johnson will make his first start for the Miami Heat tonight against the Charlotte Hornets.

Johnson, one of the team’s most consistent performers all season, will start at power forward for Luke Babbitt, who is out with a strained hip flexor he suffered Sunday against Denver.

Johnson has had a breakout season, averaging 12.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and knocking down 79 3-pointers, all career highs. Coach Erik Spoelstra has been reluctant to start Johnson in the past because of the boost he has brought to the second team but the Heat are in a must-win situation being one-half game out of the final playoff spot with five to play. And Spoelstra likely was looking at the slow starts the Heat got off to in their last two losses to the Knicks and Nuggets.

This is the Heat’s 22nd different lineup. Johnson is joined by Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, Rodney McGruder and Hassan Whiteside.

Spoelstra had the option of starting rookie Okaro White or even veteran Udonis Haslem. But White has played just 30 games since being called up from Miami’s D-League affiliate Sioux Falls and Haslem has played in just 16 games all season. He has not seen the floor since Feb. 4, a stretch of 26 games.

Babbitt has not practiced the last two days and said his hip flexor is “pretty sore.” But he has hopes of returning before the season ends.

“I definitely want to be there with my teammates,” he said Wednesday. “Just want to get as much treatment as possible the next few days and see how it feels.”

The Heat enter the game ninth in the East, one-half game behind Indiana and Chicago. Miami needs to win to regain a playoff spot. With a win, the Heat would hold the eighth spot behind No. 7 Chicago with Indiana ninth because of tie-breakers.

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