MIAMI – When it came to distributing minutes, coach Erik Spoeltra appeared to treat the Heat’s preseason opener Sunday like he will the regular season.
Spoelstra used 11 players in the first half, all but two playing at least 10 minutes, and finally emptied the bench with about five minutes remaining in the game. He subbed in the second five one at time before giving that group extended playing time.
In the end, the Heat defeated the Atlanta Hawks, 96-90, at AmericanAirlines Arena. Tyler Johnson led the Heat with 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting and Josh Richardson chipped in with 12. Hassan Whiteside had eight points and 10 rebounds in 19 minutes.
Here are out three takeaways from the preseason opener:
McGruder picks up where he left off: Rodney McGruder was back in the starting lineup Sunday at small forward, a spot he took over last season after Justise Winslow was injured and held onto for 65 games. For the second straight day McGruder showed off a shooting touch he said he worked overtime on during the summer. McGruder scored the Heat’s first five points and finished with 10 on 4-of-6 shooting. McGruder led all scorers in Saturday’s scrimmage with 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting.
“He’s proven himself with us,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “As we got to know him from him helping us win a championship in Sioux Falls also breaking into our rotation and starting for us so many games last year, he’s a winner. He’s so committed every single day, consistently working, diligently to improve. You see that methodical, incremental improvement where he’s a much different player.”
The position appears to open for McGruder with Winslow playing most of his minutes at power forward in Saturday’s scrimmage and Sunday’s game. One reason for the emphasis on the shooting during the summer was to improve on the 33.2 percent he shot on threes last year. He was 3-of-5 from long distance in Saturday’s scrimmage and 2-of-4 in Sunday’s preseason opener.
The second five: With McGruder starting at small forward, Spoelstra got to a second unit of Tyler Johnson, Wayne Ellington, Josh Richardson, Winslow and Kelly Olynyk. The unit played for eight minutes after Ellington came for Dion Waiters with three minutes to play in the first quarter. The lineup is small but with Olynyk at center the group spreads the floor, leaving the middle open for the drive and kick. Spoelstra went back to the unit in the third quarter and they helped the Heat build a 74-66 lead entering the fourth quarter.
“We had fun, moving it spacing it out,” Ellington said. “We were just enjoying it, enjoying the ball movement, enjoying everybody having their turn.”
The one constant with the unit from last year was Tyler Johnson is expected to keep his role as sixth man. If Winslow winds up as the backup power forward, he will take James Johnson’s role off the bench. Tyler Johnson, Richardson and Olynyk stood out Sunday. Tyler provided most of the scoring. Richardson was all over the court, adding four rebounds, two assists and four blocked shots to his scoring. Olynyk showed his versatility with nine points (3-of-4 from the floor), eight rebounds and five assists.
“They changed the game with their energy defensively. … so that took a little bit of pressure off them offensively. There are some good things we want to build on that we saw.”
Dragic in midseason form: Everything about Goran Dragic’s game screamed midseason form with the exception of his minutes. Dragic took his spot in the starting lineup and played 14 first half minutes before Spoelstra sat him for the rest of the game. He was replaced by Richardson for the start of the second half.
Dragic had six points and three assists making 3-of-5 shots from the field. He was attacking the rim and dishing. One of his assists was a nice bounce pass to Winslow who finished with a dunk another was a bounce pass through the legs of Dennis Schroder to Hassan Whiteside. Spoelstra will continue to monitor Dragic’s minutes throughout the preseason after the point guard led Slovenia to the EuroBasket championship this summer, playing in nine games during September including the Gold Medal game about a week before training camp started. Dragic said he was told before the game he would only play the first half.
“It’s really important (to get the rest) so I can be fresh at the start of the season to have that drive again,” Dragic said. “It’s there but in your subconscious you say ‘this is only the preseason.’ I don’t want to get hurt right now.”