MIAMI (AP) — Of all the similarities that Dion Waiters sees between Jim Boeheim and Erik Spoelstra, the one that particularly stands out is how neither coach is afraid to challenge him.
It worked for Boeheim at Syracuse.
And it’s working wonders right now for Spoelstra and the Miami Heat.
Waiters is in his best groove in his relatively short time with the Heat, and maybe even the best of his NBA career. He tied his career high for scoring in each of his last two games with 33 points apiece, and his tiebreaking 3-pointer with 0.6 seconds left on Monday provided a dramatic ending to Miami’s 105-102 win over league-leading Golden State.
“When you give him that tough love,” said longtime Syracuse assistant and Waiters confidante Mike Hopkins, “he responds.”
The numbers suggest Hopkins knows what he’s talking about.
Waiters missed 20 games from late November through early January with a groin injury, the Heat’s season went from bad to really bad without him, and when he returned, the struggles were very real — shooting 30 percent from the field and averaging 8.4 points.
In the four games since, Waiters has shot 56 percent from the field and 59 percent from 3-point range and averaged 23.8 points. Not coincidentally, the Heat have gone 4-0 and put together their best stretch of the season.
“He wants those moments,” Spoelstra said.
That’s no secret. Waiters has been lobbying for them since he arrived this fall. What’s been obvious of late is that a Heat team ravaged by injuries has needed him to have those moments.
“Coach believes in me and wants me to be great,” Waiters said. “He always is telling me things and he’s on me hard a lot. I’m the type of guy, I need that. I had coach Boeheim at Syracuse. It isn’t any worse than that, that tough love. I appreciate that.”
Goran Dragic has been arguably Miami’s most vital player all season and Hassan Whiteside has All-Star-caliber numbers, but both can see how different the Heat are when Waiters is clicking.
When Waiters scores 15 or more points, the Heat are 7-4. When he doesn’t, they’re 3-11. When he was out, they were 5-15.
“I don’t know what got into him,” Whiteside said. “I don’t know what he’s been eating, but he’s playing out of his mind right now.”
Added Dragic: “We need him to be in attack-mode all the time. He is a unique player.”
To say he’s been an enigmatic player, sometimes, would also be fair.
Waiters started his pro career in Cleveland, then moved on to Oklahoma City — with whom he had eight double-digit games in last season’s playoffs as the Thunder reached the Western Conference finals. Oklahoma City gave him a $6.8 million qualifying offer last year, then rescinded it three weeks into free agency, leaving Waiters free to sign anywhere.
He got $2.9 million from the Heat instead.
Waiters and Hopkins had long talks about what would be the best move, and when the coach who recruited him to Syracuse heard that Miami was interested, he was quickly sold on that being the right play.
“He said, `Hop, I’m betting on me,”‘ Hopkins said. “And that’s what I’ve always loved about him, that confidence in himself. He’s now with one of the greatest basketball people ever in Pat Riley and a great coach in Erik Spoelstra. … I’ve always told him that if surround yourself with great people, great things happen.”
Warriors forward Kevin Durant played with Waiters in Oklahoma City, and tipped his cap to his former teammate after Monday’s heroics.
“I’m happy for him,” Durant said. “It’s all about feeling happy in your situation. You can tell that he’s enjoying it. I wish him nothing but the best, and I’m sure he’s going to have much success in the future.”
The Heat can only hope Durant is right.
For his part, Hopkins has no doubt. He remembers Waiters’ knack in college for sending him photos of his long-after-midnight workouts, getting shots up over and over and teasing Hopkins for being asleep at those times. He’s seeing the same hunger in Miami.
“He is the most competitive person on the planet,” Hopkins said. “You challenge him, he will take the challenge. And he will win.”
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