MIAMI — Dion Waiters is supposed to be one of the Heat’s closers this season.
But in Saturday’s loss to Boston, Waiters spent the entire fourth quarter on the bench. Coach Erik Spoelstra said his decision to hold Waiters out of the final quarter didn’t have to do with his troublesome left ankle, it had to do with the struggles of the starting lineup.
“Last night, that [starting] group wasn’t going,” Spoelstra said after Sunday’s practice. “It’s not an indictment on anything. It was clear, at the beginning of the first and third, that group was flat. We found a group that got us back into the game, made a couple of different subs. We went with that group down the stretch and we weren’t able to get it done. That’s why you have 15 guys on the roster. Different nights call for different things. But Dion is fully in the mix.”
Waiters, who finished Saturday with five points on 2-of-8 shooting in 24 minutes, exited the game with 3:23 remaining in the third quarter and never returned. The Heat outscored the Celtics 33-31 the rest of the way with Waiters watching from the bench.
Waiters is averaging 13.2 points on 42.2 percent shooting to go with 2.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists in 31.5 minutes this season.
Last season, the Heat outscored opponents by 85 points with Waiters on the court. It’s still very early, but that number has flipped this season with opponents outscoring the Heat by 21 points with Waiters on the court and the Heat outscoring opponents by six when Waiters is on the bench.
Nobody on the Heat, including Waiters, will use the sore left ankle as an excuse for these numbers. Waiters, who left practice Sunday before reporters could speak to him, has found a way to play in each of Miami’s first five games despite lingering soreness in an ankle that’s been an ongoing issue since he sprained it on March 17.
“He wouldn’t want me to make that excuse for him, and he won’t make that excuse,” Spoelstra said. “You have to adjust in this league. It’s not the first time that he has dealt with something. And just like the majority of the guys in the league, as the season goes on, you’re not feeling 100 percent and you’ve got to find different ways to get back to winning. You could see in some games it looks like he has the step and in some games he doesn’t. But his treatment is going really well. He’s getting better. He’s getting healthier. The pain and all that is clearing up. So he just has to stick with the process.”
Waiters revealed during training camp that he could have had surgery on the ankle, but he decided against it because he would have been forced to miss eight to 10 months.
Waiters ended up signing a four-year, $52 million contract with the Heat this summer. $1.1 million of his salary this season is tied to a bonus that kicks in if he plays in more than 70 of Miami’s 82 games, raising his 2017-18 salary from $11 million to $12.1 million.
Forward James Johnson said teammates appreciate Waiters fighting through the pain to play.
“I don’t feel sorry for that man. He’s also a dog,” Johnson said of Waiters’ competitive mentality. “And we also need him. He knows that we need him. So for him to sacrifice like that is just part of the game, part of the character, part of building something bigger than you.”