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Growth of Heat’s young core one of big positives from season

At this point, it’s clear the Heat will spend the final month of the regular season trying to win its way into the playoffs.

Tanking or trying to maneuver its way to a better draft pick? The Heat isn’t interested right now.

“You want to get in,” Dwyane Wade said of the playoffs. “You want to be able to get in to have an opportunity, especially for these young guys who don’t have a lot of playoff experiences. We want to try to get them more experience and more opportunity to learn something about themselves that they don’t even knew yet.”

The message is the same from Heat president Pat Riley, when it comes to the team’s young core.

“It is absolutely essential that they grow with experience, and not only experience with playing time, but they get to the playoffs,” Riley said during an interview with Fox Sports Sun host Jason Jackson that was released last week by the Heat. “They can experience in the playoffs maybe something that can get them to another level. You make your mark when you get to the playoffs.”

With 19 games remaining in the regular season, the 10th-place Heat entered Tuesday just percentage points behind the eighth and final playoff spot occupied by the Magic. The Heat has the same record as the ninth-place Hornets, but is behind Charlotte based on the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Every remaining regular-season game will have some meaning, and not just because these are the final games of Wade’s playing career. But because the Heat’s playoff hopes are on the line, with a critical matchup against the Hornets looming on Wednesday in Charlotte.

And because these are the games — ones with stakes — the Heat believes will help develop its young core of 21-year-old Bam Adebayo, 25-year-old Josh Richardson and 22-year-old Winslow.

“It speeds [the growth process] up a lot,” Richardson said. “Being put in a position like that, you have no choice but to show up or fold. For us to be in that position now is going to be interesting. But it’s going to be a good learning experience.”

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The Heat has been in the playoff race in each of the past four seasons, but this year feels different because it’s relying on its young core to lead the way with veterans injured or losing playing time. Goran Dragic is in and out of the rotation because of injury issues after undergoing right knee surgery in December, James Johnson’s minutes are down, and Wayne Ellington and Tyler Johnson were traded.

Instead, the Heat is using Adebayo, Richardson and Winslow in bigger roles.

“We’re going to go as far as they take us,” Wade said. “When Justise and Josh play good, we got a chance to beat anyone. We understand their importance.”

Richardson is averaging a team-high 34.8 minutes of playing time this season, Winslow is second on the list at 29.8 minutes, and Adebayo’s playing time has jumped from his rookie season to an average of 22.2 minutes.

“I mentioned before with this team that if we got to March and Dwyane [Wade] and [Udonis Haslem] were still the only leaders in the locker room, we would be in trouble,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And that’s not what happened. You’re seeing Justise Winslow emerge as a big time leader of this team. You’re seeing Josh Richardson really emerge. You can see their animation, and you can feel their competitive drive and you can hear them.”

On and off the court, their games are growing.

Winslow is averaging career-bests in points (12.6), rebounds (5.5) and assists (4.3), while shooting a career-best 43.2 percent from the field. He’s thrived as the Heat’s starting point guard while Dragic has been out, averaging 14.1 points on 45.9 percent shooting from the field and 39.1 percent shooting on threes, 5.7 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 39 games since the start of December.

Richardson began the season as the Heat’s primary offensive option, but there have been bumps and his usage has dipped a little along the way. But he’s still averaging career-bests in points (17.4), rebounds (3.6) and assists (4), while shooting 42.1 percent from the field and 37.1 percent on threes.

Adebayo has picked up his play recently, averaging 10.6 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.4 blocks during the past five games.

“I think it’s been great for us,” Richardson said of the experiences the Heat’s young players have gone through this season. “I think all of us have grown a lot and we have more growing to do. But it’s fun to watch the growth, even though we haven’t been winning all the games we want to win. But you got to take some positives.”

It’s not just Adebayo, Richardson and Winslow. When speaking to Heat players, they also make sure to mention high-flying 22-year-old Derrick Jones Jr. as part of the young core.

“I would like to even add D. Jones to that young core group,” Winslow said. “He’s been spectacular for us all year, with just his versatility being able to guard multiple guys. A guy like Bam, just his presence and his athleticism jumps out at you. His skill work has come a long way and just his IQ for the game. J-Rich, he just keeps evolving every year. You’ve seen him step up his offensive game and his defense is always there. We’re going to continue to grow.”

While Miami’s young players have impressed this season, a superstar has not emerged yet. But their continuous improvement has the Heat encouraged.

Adebayo is under contract for next season and the Heat has the power to retain his rights for the following two seasons, Richardson is in the first season of a four-year extension, Winslow’s four-year extension begins next season and Jones will be back if the Heat guarantees his 2019-20 salary, as expected.

With so much discussion regarding the direction of the Heat organization, Adebayo, Richardson, Winslow and Jones believe they are the future. And the future is apparently now.

“As young guys, we just want to put our best foot forward,” Winslow said. “We want to see how good we really are and how we match up. Then you go back in the offseason and you work on your game. But right now, we’re just trying to see how we stack up. We’re leaving it all out there and it feels good to grow together.”

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