Five takeaways from the Miami Heat’s 103-96 win over the Chicago Bulls (5-14) on Friday at the United Center, a victory that snapped Miami’s three-game losing skid.
1. Josh Richardson came through when the Heat (7-11) needed him most. It’s a role he’s grown accustomed to this season. With the Bulls cutting the Heat’s 26-point lead to four in the fourth quarter, Richardson ended the comeback with 12 of his team-high 27 points over the final 6:17 of the game. He made five of his six shots during his hot stretch.
And all of it was done with Dwyane Wade on the bench, which made it even more impressive in coach Erik Spoelstra’s eyes.
“I didn’t necessarily do it on purpose, but I did want to see that group finish without Dwyane,” Spoelstra said. “I did not want to see him go in there and all of a sudden everybody defer to him. We’re going to need that, obviously, because Dwyane is one of the very best ever in this league closing games.
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“But J-Rich has been in this situation a few times. I thought his poise and preparation to get to the proper spots was much better, much more detailed and even made some plays out of that, which was growth. And even if the shots didn’t go, they were the right place, right tempo and right actions and that’s something we can build on. His confidence will only grow from this.”
This is nothing new for Richardson. He’s averaging team highs in fourth-quarter points (6.2), shot attempts (4.6) and minutes (10.3) this season. And Richardson is closing out games efficiently, too, shooting 50 percent from the field in the final period.
“He’s been doing a great job all year of being willing to take all those shots,” Wade said of Richardson. “When you have success, it gives you more confidence to take them. Even in the moments when you miss them. I think he understands he’s our guy, we’re going to him. He’s picking up the phone every time we call him, for the most part, and that’s all you can ask for.”
The Heat has asked Richardson to take on a leading role this season and he’s made the most of it. The 25-year-old is averaging a career-high and team-high in points (20.5) and is shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 43.7 percent from three-point range.
“Our team doesn’t have just a guy, so it’s like whoever is stepping up, I guess,” Richardson said. “Today my number got called and I just tried to answer it the best I could.”
Even if Richardson won’t admit it, it’s pretty clear he’s an essential part of the Heat’s winning formula. He’s a team-best plus-65 this season, with Goran Dragic a distant second at plus-23. Miami has been outscored by 91 points when Richardson is not playing.
2. This was one of the good nights for the Heat’s defense. Miami limited a shorthanded Bulls team to 96 points on 37.2 percent shooting, and forced 18 Chicago turnovers. It helps that the Bulls have one of the worst offenses in the league (second-worst offensive rating in the NBA) and are still without Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen, Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine. But the Heat’s defense still deserves credit, as it held the Bulls to their second-worst shooting percentage in a game this season.
Miami owns the eighth-best defensive rating in the league, so it’s been solid on that end of the court all season. But inconsistent play has been an issue. The Heat has already allowed its opponent to shoot better than 46 percent in seven games. Friday was one of the good nights, though, and a glimpse at what Miami’s defense is capable of when it’s on.
The Heat is now 3-1 when holding opponents under 100 points this season.
3. It didn’t take long for Spoelstra to put forward James Johnson back in the Heat’s starting lineup. After playing off the bench in his first two games back from injury, Johnson made his first start of the season Friday. He was inefficient with three points on 1 of 8 shooting, but still managed to impact the game with four rebounds and five assists in a season-high 27 minutes.
Johnson didn’t score much, but his ability to facilitate offense helped, especially with guards Goran Dragic (right knee), Tyler Johnson (strained right hamstring) and Dion Waiters (left ankle surgery) out.
“He’s a unique basketball player,” Spoelstra said of Johnson. “He’s a little bit similar to Draymond Green offensively. He can have that great impact and not score, because of his ability to see the floor, handle at the four position, collapse the defense and make plays at the rim or sprays out to the three-point line. Also, with Goran out, he just gives us that extra ball-handler to initiate offense with him. I said it before the game, we have a lot of versatility on this team, but it doesn’t fully get unlocked until JJ is out there.”
Johnson missed the entire preseason and the first 15 games of the season as he recovered from May surgery to repair a sports hernia. But now that Johnson is back in the Heat’s starting lineup, the expectation is he’s there to stay. This allows Justise Winslow, Kelly Olynyk and Derrick Jones Jr., who all started at power forward while Johnson was out, to find some consistency with their roles off the bench.
“He’s a trigger for us,” Wade said of Johnson. “His ability to set screens, his ability to handle, his ability to get us into offense. There’s going to be some nights when he’s doing that, the defense is going to forget about him and he’s going to go off for 16 or 20. So, we definitely have been missing him, his presence. His IQ is big for our team.”
4. Bam Adebayo continues to play more minutes than Kelly Olynyk as part of the Heat’s center rotation. And on Friday, Adebayo made the most of his playing time with his first double-double of the season. The second-year big man finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds in 26 minutes.
While Spoelstra’s rotation is always changing, it’s noteworthy that Adebayo has now played more minutes than Olynyk in four consecutive games. Olynyk was a surprise DNP-CD (did not play, coach’s decision) in Tuesday’s loss to the Nets.
For the season, Adebayo is averaging 18 minutes of playing time to Olynyk’s 17.7 minutes. That’s a pretty even split, but Adebayo has had the edge in that category lately.
5. Can the Heat find any type of momentum? Miami’s longest winning streak this season is two games, as it’s won back-to-back games just twice.
After Friday’s victory over the Bulls, Miami will have a chance to do it a third time Sunday in Toronto against the Raptors. It’s not going to be easy, though, as the Raptors own the league’s best record at 16-4 in Kawhi Leonard’s first season with the organization.
Whether the Heat can get a win in Toronto or not, it has to build some momentum over the next two weeks before its six-game West Coast trip that begins Dec. 7 against the Phoenix Suns. Miami has five games remaining before that trip, including a four-game homestand that features just one game against a team with a winning record.
The time is now to turn things around because starting that long six-game trip six or seven games under .500 would be very dangerous for the Heat.