The Miami HEAT didn’t get off to the start they had hoped.
There were inconsistencies. Four out of their first six games were losses, and an injury to their top center caused him to miss five of those. Guys weren’t communicating well enough.
But then came the simplest of realizations.
“If we don’t guard, we not gon’ win,” Miami wing Josh Richardson told Basketball Insiders at the team’s shoot around in Cleveland. “We can’t just outscore people.”
In November, the HEAT have an 8-6 record. They are fourth in the NBA in defense, allowing just 99.4 points per game, and have limited their opponents to the least amount of shot attempts per game (36.1) in the league. During this stretch of games, they’ve held their counterparts to less than 100 points all but two times in winning situations.
“I think we’re figuring out how we need to play,” Richardson said. “I think we started the year off thinking we played one way, but ya know, just going back to the drawing board and back to basics helped us out.”
The third-year swingman out of Tennessee has certainly done his part in shaping this Miami defense. You could even say he’s been the anchor.
According to Cleaning The Glass, when he’s playing the HEAT’s defensive rating is 101.1. If he’s sitting, they allow 13.8 more points per 100 possessions. It’s a discrepancy that grades in the 97th percentile among all players.
Richardson flat-out flusters his competition and has really put himself in the top tier of defenders. In regards to his position, Richardson ranks fifth in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (1.49) and ninth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus (1.6).
Among players whose opponents shoot at least 10 attempts against them per game, Richardson has stifled his adversaries to a league-low 34 percent from the field. As specified by NBA.com, opponents normally convert 44.8 percent of those shots — the difference between those two figures is the highest margin in the NBA.
With all that being said, there’s got to be a trick in the book that Richardson has found, right?
“Man I can’t throw my secrets out there,” he said with a grin. “But I think a lot of it’s effort and positioning. I put a lot of emphasis on that end.”
Defense has always been a staple of the HEAT culture since Erik Spoelstra sunk his teeth into the organization. He’s instilled these principles for years now and, though this team isn’t where he wants it to be right now on that end collectively, he’s seeing it specifically from Richardson.
“He takes pride in his defense,” Spoelstra said. “He really competes. He loves to take on any challenge one through four, sometimes with us one through five. He’s not afraid of getting embarrassed out there. He’s gonna put himself out there competitively. And he has the physical tools to match that.”
Miami’s head coach talked to his players about the week they just had—three straight wins and a Player of the Week Award for Goran Dragic. He used it as an example, basically saying if they get their defense to that “top five” level where they want it to be, then guys could get recognized for it individually.
For Richardson, the appreciation is well received, but it’s difficult to get him to talk about himself. He’s a person who doesn’t want to talk about personal accomplishments or awards and quietly goes about his business.
What he’s truly focused on is answering the bell for Spoelstra by getting the HEAT’s defense to the standard he expects.
“I’m a great teammate,” Richardson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m a good communicator. I can help drive these guys to want to be able to be that top five defense.
“I think we all want to, but we just gotta put it into action. I think we’ve got the personnel. We’ve got guys—Justise Winslow, Hassan Whiteside, Dion Waiters—guys that are physically gifted that can make it happen on that end.”
While Richardson’s prowess on the defensive end has been spectacular, success on the other side of the ball hasn’t come nearly as easily. Fortunately for him that wasn’t the case on Tuesday. He had his best night of the season efficiency-wise in Cleveland, pitching in 15 points on 67 percent from the field.
So the flashes have been there, but the consistency has not. Through 20 games, his field goal percentage is below 37 percent. More than half of his attempts have come from the perimeter, where he’s only hit 27 percent of those shots.
The struggles haven’t defeated him, though. When asked about what he thinks the issue is, the 24-year-old seemed baffled.
“It’s not a secret I’m not playing up to my offensive potential, but I mean we winning so I’m not really getting into that,” Richardson said. “I mean if I need to, I feel like I can…I don’t know. I gotta turn it around eventually, but this game is tough.
“You’re not always gonna be playing well. You could be playing great one week, could play terrible another week. I mean, it’s hard to put your finger on it. You can’t get on that roller coaster of emotions, ‘cause then, that’s where you might end up in the doldrums or some sh**.”
If you think about it, it would be difficult to find a groove with so many ball-dominant players getting touches.
Waiters is a very aggressive offensive player who will always get his looks. Dragic is a floor general, but also somebody who’s a threat to put the ball in the basket. And we all know that Whiteside will get plenty of opportunities when it comes to post-ups.
“It’s tough ‘cause you know we’ve got so many guys that are good with the ball, that can really score,” Richardson told Basketball Insiders. “If somebody sits, then yeah I’ll be more aggressive, I’ll take more of the game into my own hands. But that’s not what I need to do right now, so it is what it is.”
His current role in the offense is to make his shots when given chances. As previously mentioned, the success rate beyond the arc leaves much to be desired. To him, it has nothing to do with mechanics.
Richardson told Basketball Insiders that it’s strictly a “rhythm thing” and he’s been feeling great during practices. He’s even told his coaches that it’s only a matter of time before he reels off a great stretch from distance. Maybe the trio of threes he hit against the Cavaliers was the start of it.
If there’s anybody that believes in him as much as he does in himself, it’s David Fizdale. The two shared a tight-knit relationship in his final year as an assistant in Miami, which coincided with Richardson’s first season as a pro.
Monday night, it was announced that the Memphis Grizzlies shockingly relieved Fizdale of his duties as head coach of the team after a 7-12 start, plagued by injuries to Mike Conley and other key pieces.
“It’s tough man,” Richardson said. “I don’t think he deserved that. I don’t think he was given enough of a chance with one of their best players being out for so long, so of course it’s gonna be tough to win as many games as you want.
“But I mean Fiz—I was one of the closest to him my rookie year. My pre-draft workout in Miami, we talked for like 35 minutes the first time we ever met. He encouraged me a lot. He told me I had a great chance to be in this league. He had seen me play and the first day I got drafted here, I texted him. I was like, ‘I’m on the plane. I can’t believe it. Let’s get in the gym tomorrow.’
“Fiz is one of my closest friends and coaches, one of my guys, so I’m praying that he lands well.”
Richardson was then poised to send out a message to his former coach.
“…Come back,” he told Basketball Insiders laughing before giving words of encouragement. “Just keep your head up. He’s a great coach. He’s a genius, very smart coach. Anybody would be lucky to have him. So keep his head up and stay ready.”
Miami took one on the chin in Northeast Ohio and will look to regroup with a victory against the Knicks in New York on the second night of a back-to-back. They’re 10-10 and have their sights set on being in the playoff picture.
Thanks to stellar leadership from everybody on the team and especially Spoelstra, the HEAT were within one game of the postseason in the 2016-17 campaign despite going 11-30 in the first half of the year.
This time around, it’s on the players to reciprocate it to their head coach, and Richardson believes they will.
“I think we owe it to [Spoelstra], ourselves, how much work we put in, to the fans—I think we deserve to put ourselves in that position to at least get in there,” Richardson said. “I think we’re doing a decent job right now. We can always get better, so as the year goes on I think we’ll keep figuring it out.”
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