The Miami Heat return from the NBA All-Star break for the final 26 games of the regular season with a big boost in point guard Goran Dragic returning to practice from knee injury, along with forward Derrick Jones Jr.
Both will travel with the team to Philadelphia and be available for Thursday’s game against the 76ers, according to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, after the duo participated in a full-scale-contact 5-on-5 practice on Wednesday at AmericanAirlines Arena.
“We’ll continue to evaluate them,” Spoelstra said. “I still think they need a little more work, and we’ll be at home after that and think we’ll be able to continue to progress with the work they’ve had, but at least they’ve made this big step. They’ve taken this step forward, and they’ll be with it.”
Should Dragic and Jones not play on Thursday, the Heat return to Miami for their first home game since Feb. 2 on Saturday against the Detroit Pistons. Both will be slowly integrated back into the mix as Spoelstra said there will be a minutes restriction to start.
In the case of Dragic, he had surgery on the right knee two months ago, but has missed the greater part of the last three months with it ailing. He’s been able to play just 14 games this season.
“I really want us to be patient with it,” Spoelstra said. “He’s missed a lot of time, and we want to make sure he’s making steps forward and not having any setbacks.”
As Dragic gets worked back into the lineup, the question becomes how the point guard role will be managed once he approaches his full capability.
Justise Winslow has started 26 consecutive games and 28 of the 30 straight Dragic has missed, converting himself from playing forward. In the last 26 starts, Winslow has averaged 14.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and is shooting .445 from the floor and .375 on 3-pointers.
“The whole me-Goran point guard thing, I’m not too worried about it,” said Winslow, who continued to work with the first group on Wednesday. “Goran, he’s established himself in this league in that role. You know, obviously, there have been times in his career where he’s been off the ball, as well, still being in the point guard role but off the ball.
“Coach is going to do what’s best for the team, but I feel going forward, just period, I’m a starter in this league. Not even sure what position, but I’ve been playing great at the point guard position. I just feel I’m a starter in this league and just keep getting better every day, but I don’t know how this is going to shape out.”
For Spoelstra, he’s in no rush to determine who starts at point guard between the two, but he understands the importance of having a healthy Dragic.
“We need Goran, and we’ll be able to figure that out. We’ll take this process patiently. This is not going to be something where I’m phasing him in and, ‘You’re playing 32 minutes a game.’ Not at all. Not with 26 games to go, and Goran realizes that too – that he still has quite a bit of work to do – but he can be available and he can still play. If not [Thursday], soon. That’s great news, however you slice it.”
Whether Winslow finishes the season in the point guard role or not, he feels he has been able to take qualities from the position to help his overall game.
“The biggest thing is I’ve grown into sort of a leader for this group, just using my voice, getting guys organized at different spots, so that was really amplified at the point guard position,” he said. “Just continue to find ways to impact the game, no matter the position. I’ve already proven that, but I love having the ball in my hands. My teammates enjoyed me in that role, watching me grow, watching me help them get better.”
Dragic was not available to speak to reporters after Wednesday’s practice.
Jones’ return was ahead of schedule after he was found to have bone bruises in his right knee after it buckled from under him as he prepared to take off for a dunk on a fast break against the Knicks on Jan. 27 in New York.
“Oh, to be young,” Spoelstra said in characterizing Jones’ quick recovery.
Said Jones: “I feel good. Honestly, I think the injury was a little bit more scary because I’ve never had knee problems and just the pain that I felt at the time, it was just unbearable. It happens in this game, but I’ve been here rehabbing every day and getting physical therapy and getting my legs right.”
Spoelstra lauded Jones’ strength training before the injury for keeping it from being worse.