Five takeaways from the Miami Heat’s 115-98 win over the Phoenix Suns (4-22) on Friday at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
1. Goran Dragic made his return, and the Heat’s offense benefited from it. That’s not a surprise, considering statistically Miami’s offense has been far better with Dragic on the court this season.
After missing the previous eight games with a swollen right knee, the Heat’s starting point guard contributed 11 points and 10 assists in 21 minutes in his return to record his first double-double of the season. Miami outscored Phoenix by 15 points with Dragic on the court.
“Just the fact that he’s out there,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said when asked what pleased him most about Dragic’s first game back. “We look like a totally different team when our All-Star is healthy and able to get on the wood. We were able to get him 21 quality minutes. I was about to put him back out there in the end, but I didn’t have to.”
The Heat (10-14) posted an offensive rating of 125 when Dragic was playing Friday compared to 105.3 when he was on the bench. That’s just a continuation of a season-long trend, as Miami has scored 109.3 points per 100 possessions with Dragic playing and 102 points per 100 possessions without him this year.
For a Heat offense that’s currently ranked fourth-worst in the NBA, Dragic’s return is huge. Not only does it help Miami score more points, but it also allows players like Josh Richardson, Dwyane Wade and Tyler Johnson to play off the ball more and settle into their usual roles.
“He’s our All-Star. Sometimes it can be as simple as that,” Spoelstra said when asked how Dragic helps Miami’s offense. “He just brings a level of confidence and calmness to the team. We’ve said that same type of thing about Dwyane. J-Rich can play a little bit more off the ball, but still have the ball in his hands and make plays. But Goran gives us that end to end, north-south attacker. Guys can kind of fall into their own positions.”
After the Heat’s win over the Suns, Dragic said his knee wasn’t an issue in his first game back. But his conditioning is still a work in progress.
“I was fatigued. I couldn’t move,” Dragic said with a grin. “My lungs were almost exploding. But I was in constant communication with Spo when I needed to get out and get back. I think for the first couple of minutes, three or four minutes, I already was signaling to Spo that I wanted to get out.”
The Heat announced after Friday’s game that Dragic will not play Saturday against the Clippers on the second night of the back-to-back set. This was part of Miami’s plan even before Friday night, with Dragic coming off an injury.
2. There was no Hassan Whiteside, but there was Bam Adebayo. That was more than enough Friday.
With Whiteside away from the team for the birth of his first child, Adebayo started in his spot at center against the Suns. The result? Adebayo turned in one of the best performances of his NBA career, with a career-high 22 points to go with 10 rebounds and two assists in 32 minutes.
“He was all over the place,” Spoelstra said.
Most of Adebayo’s numbers came in the first two quarters, as he entered halftime with 20 points and eight rebounds.
Adebayo’s energy stood out from the start, as he chased down loose balls and grabbed two offensive rebounds in the first quarter. He also drew six free throws in the first period on his way to finishing 10 of 11 from the free-throw line.
“I feel like I do that every night. I provide energy no matter if Hassan is in or if he’s out,” Adebayo said. “I feel like my teammates want me to bring energy, so that’s what I did. I’m sad that he’s out, but it’s an indescribable moment that he’s having. So I just had to start and take care of business.”
Adebayo’s three jump-out-of-your-seat alley-oops (all assisted by Dragic) will likely earn most of the attention, but it’s his defense and screening that really left Spoelstra and his teammates impressed.
“It wakes everybody up , for sure,” Spoelstra said of Adebayo’s energy. “And then he was able to sustain it, particularly in that second quarter. He was doing it on both ends. Everybody probably notices and immediately remembers the lobs. But defensively, he was doing a lot of good things. His deflections, his ball pressure, his pick-and-roll defense, protecting the basket. These things have gotten so much better in a year and a half.”
Dragic said: “Bam did an amazing job setting those screens. And when I was in that gap, he rolled really fast. From there on, it’s just reading the situation and it was pretty good.”
This was the type of performance that makes you think about Heat executive Alonzo Mourning’s comments during a radio interview before the season, when he said this about Adebayo: “I know he is going to be the best player in our organization.”
Nights like Friday show Mourning might end up being right.
3. The Heat’s defense woke up following a slow start against one of the NBA’s worst offenses.
After allowing Phoenix to score 36 on 54.5 percent shooting in the first quarter, the Heat held the Suns to 62 points on 42.1 percent shooting over the final three quarters. Miami’s best defensive quarter of the night came in the second, when Phoenix scored just 14 on 6 of 18 shooting.
“That [first quarter] wasn’t the tone that we wanted to set for the game,” Spoelstra said. “But you do have to give them credit. They were scoring and getting us on our heels, especially with their cutting versus our packed defense. But from there, we followed up with a 14-point defensive quarter in the second quarter and just good things in the second half on both sides of the floor.”
This isn’t a huge feat, with the Suns featuring the lowest scoring offense in the league. But Friday’s performance did bump the Heat back into the top 10 in the defensive rating category, which is something that will make Spoelstra and the coaching staff happy.
4. Justise Winslow has been making his threes lately.
It was a quality all-around performance for the 22-year-old Friday, as he finished with a season-high 20 points on 7 of 8 shooting to go with eight rebounds and six assists off the Heat’s bench.
“He was balling out there,” Spoelstra said. “And doing it on both sides of the court, and that’s what it’s got to be. Some nights, he’ll have scoring games like this. He only took eight shots. That’s efficiency. Seven for eight, take the shots that are wide open and right in your wheelhouse. And facilitate for us, but most importantly defend and be a presence on that side of the floor. He was tonight.”
But it’s his shooting from three-point range that’s quietly becoming a positive trend for him and the team.
Winslow was 4 of 4 on threes against the Suns. He’s now shooting 38.6 percent from deep on 2.9 attempts per game. Both of those numbers would be career-highs.
Winslow has put in a lot of work behind the scenes on his shooting, and it looks to be paying off.
5. This is exactly what the Heat needed to do in Phoenix. Miami doesn’t get many blow-out wins, but this is one it was expected to get.
The Heat entered as an eight-point favorite over the struggling Suns, which came in with the league’s worst record and overall plus-minus. Throw in the fact that Phoenix was playing on the second night of a back-to-back and its top two scorers Devin Booker (left hamstring strain) and T.J. Warren (right ankle soreness) were out, and this really was as close to a must-win as you get this early in the season for Miami.
Friday’s victory was a nice way for the Heat to begin a season-long six-game trip. The remaining five games on the trip include four against teams that are .500 or better, starting with a Saturday matchup against the Clippers (16-8) in Los Angeles on the second night of a back-to-back set.