Heat guard Josh Richardson: ‘I definitely feel better than I have all year’

Miami Heat guard Josh Richardson, left, attempts to steal the ball from Cleveland Cavaliers guard Deron Williams during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, April 10, 2017, in Miami. The Heat defeated the Cavaliers 124-121 in overtime. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

MIAMI — Injuries limited Josh Richardson over the first half of his second NBA season. Now, an injury has opened the door for Richardson to have a more prominent role for the Heat down the stretch.

Richardson has started the past 12 games at shooting guard in place of the injured Dion Waiters. He’s averaging 12.3 points on 42.5 percent shooting from the field, 41.1 percent shooting from 3-point range and 81 percent shooting from the free-throw line to go along with 3.3 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.5 blocks during that span of games.

But maybe the most important statistic for Richardson is the 35.8 minutes of playing time he’s averaged with Waiters sidelined. The 23-year-old guard played 28.7 minutes per contest over his first 40 games of the season before this recent stretch as a fill-in.

“Just being consistently back has been huge,” Richardson said. “Not being in and out [because of injuries], not thinking about anything but the game.”

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This is the role Richardson planned on having entering the season before battling a partially torn MCL in his right knee, a sprained ankle and a sprained left foot that kept him out of 29 of the Heat’s first 57 games. After that up-and-down stretch, Richardson has found a way to stay healthy and play in Miami’s past 24 games.

“I definitely feel better than I have all year, more confident,” Richardson said. “Now I’m just playing ball.”

That confidence is showing, as Richardson has played his best basketball of the season over the past week. The 6-foot-6 Richardson is averaging 14.5 points and shooting 50 percent from 3-point territory and contributing 3.3 steals and 1.3 blocks over the past four games.

These aren’t just empty numbers either, as Miami has outscored opponents by a combined 33 points with Richardson on the court during this four-game stretch.

A big part of Richardson’s positive impact has come through his play on the defensive end. He’s limited players to 41.7 percent shooting over the past four games, a stretch that’s included tough defensive assignments like DeMar DeRozan, John Wall and Bradley Beal.

“We need it,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Richardson’s defensive impact. “Come on, this is for competitors only right now. So you take whatever challenge is given and you have to compete. These are not easy matchups. You’re going to get scored on. You’re going to lose a lot of battles. But that fortitude, persistence he shows is a skill. It’s not just about your athletic skill. It’s how you approach competition when you’re losing some battles, to continue to stick your nose in there and find a way to win other battles. That’s what you’ve got to love about J-Rich right now. We need him to guard multiple positions and none of these are easy.”

In fact, getting to this point wasn’t easy for Richardson. But after battling injury issues to start this season, he’s back in the role he envisioned for himself.

“It was a roller coaster for me this year,” Richardson said. “Up and down, not even just on the court but so much was going on off the court. Trying to keep my head straight.

“It’s hard as a competitor not to get impatient with yourself and with the process. Just talking to coaches about it and my teammates, they definitely helped me through it. I grew up a lot in that aspect this year. Going forward, I know how to handle it if it ever happens again. Hopefully it doesn’t.”

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