Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow were incredible defensively in their preseason opener, and that’s a pleasant sign for the Miami Heat.

The Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat engaged in a slugfest on Sunday night. It was the first preseason game for both squads, and each is gauging talent for contrasting reasons. Atlanta is going to be battling for a lottery spot while Miami is focused on the postseason. For the Heat, an extended viewing of Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson is a necessity. And it’s way too early, but they were dazzling in their debut.

Miami is an elite defense. They’ve earned that title. In 2017, the Heat were fifth-overall in points per game allowed (102.1) and defensive rating (106.7 points allowed per 100 possessions). Erik Spoelstra employs a technically-sound scheme that limits aggressiveness and relies more on the traditional way of playing your man straight-up and forcing him in to help. Having Hassan Whiteside rotating and protecting the basket meant players could’ve gambled on the perimeter, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, Whiteside allowed guards and forwards to pressure ball handlers and just be pesky because, even if they got beat, he’d be quick on coming over to help.

This preseason is going to be perfect for Richardson and Winslow because they only scratched the surface of what they could do. Miami finished as high as they did statistically with those guys not consistently gracing the floor, so imagine how much better the team would become with them eating a ton of minutes. 

The two swings are similar anthropometrically:

  • Winslow - 21-years-old, 6-7, 225 pounds with a 6-10 wingspan
  • Richardson - 24-years-old, 6-6, 200 pounds with a 6-10 wingspan

Each is a natural at a different position. Winslow is better suited to be a small forward whereas Richardson is more of a shooting guard. However, the size and length mean they can defend multiple positions with ease, and both are athletic enough not to be liabilities. The only thing I’d worry about is Richardson matching up against stronger guys, and that’s even much of a concern because bruiser-type players are a thing of the past.

Both guys have a defense-first reputation that started in college. Those have followed them to the big leagues. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen much of Richardson or Winslow since they entered the NBA. After playing 78 games during his rookie year, Justise missed all but 18 games last season after dealing with a wrist injury and undergoing shoulder surgery. Richardson wasn’t out as long, but he still missed 29 games with various ailments. When they played, though, they were well above-average on defense and that more than compensated for ineptitude offensively.

It may be rash to go off one preseason game, but NBA’s preseason is different from other sports because it gives the coaches the opportunity to deploy different rotations and see how they work together. (In short, they take these games seriously.) Nowadays, teams need to be deep to compete. And depth is achieved by having confidence in your guys coming off the bench. The preseason is also used to shake off any rust, and players don’t think of it much differently because they’re excited to get out and play against guys who aren’t wearing the same jersey as them. In Sunday’s game against Atlanta, the Heat dominated defensively, and Winslow and Richardson were vital.

Apr 10, 2017; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat guard Josh Richardson (0) dunks the ball during the second half against the Cleveland Cavaliers at American Airlines Arena. The Heat won 124-121 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 10, 2017; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat guard Josh Richardson (0) dunks the ball during the second half against the Cleveland Cavaliers at American Airlines Arena. The Heat won 124-121 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The game was a brutal offensive showing for the Hawks. They threw up 90 points on 35.6 percent shooting, and the only reason the game was close was they connected on 22-of-27 free throws. (Miami, despite shooting a high percentage from the floor, missed 14 of their 29 foul shots.) All of Atlanta’s offense was in a funk. That, of course, is because it was their first competitive game of the upcoming season, but also because Miami hasn’t appeared to have lost a step on defense. That continuity stems from almost their entire roster being the same. Kelly Olynyk was the only new face to get a nice amount of playing time.

Richardson and Winslow played 24 and 22 minutes, respectively, which were among Miami’s top-four. They had the biggest impact on defense. Together, they tallied seven blocks, nine defensive boards and two steals. Richardson’s outing was a bit better, but I don’t know if I feel that way because he had a couple of highlight plays. His blocks were chasedown style, but Dennis Schroder only beat him on one cut. Regardless, Richardson’s length made the “highlight plays” possible, and he easily could’ve given up and made a half-assed attempt to swat those shots. He didn’t. That’s how Miami wants to play defense.

Both him and Winslow were solid in areas that don’t show up in the box score, and having capable wing defenders is huge because of the depth of backcourt talent in the NBA. Miami’s two wings that I keep talking about could push them into top-three territory because they can guard multiple positions and alter a ton of shots while playing aggressively because they have guys like Whiteside and James Johnson on their backside. What’s more is that they won’t need to expend a lot of energy on offense — hopefully.

Also Read: Dwyane Wade Hopes To Retire With The Heat

A lot of high-usage NBA players can’t put consistent energy toward defense because their team needs them on the other end. Typically, a front office will surround their superstar with guys who can fill those holes. The Heat are different. They’re not a great offensive team, and I don’t expect them to have a huge reliance on points to win their games. Dion Waiters and Goran Dragic will do their parts and Whiteside will chip in, but expecting Winslow and Richardson to have a much bigger load on offense compared to last year isn’t a smart projection.

Neither has shown much substance on that end. Winslow — on 12.5 attempts — shot 35.6 percent overall and 20.0 percent from three. He dropped six points on Sunday night after averaging 10.9 last year. The difference, however, was in shooting percentage. Winslow literally couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean during the 18 games he played. Among players who averaged at least 10 attempts a night, Winslow had the second-lowest shooting percentage at 35.6 percent. Jerryd Bayless was the one guy below him at 34.4.

Richardson wasn’t much better. He was also sub-40 percent (39.4) but finished seventh on the team in shots per game. The only significant advantage he has over his friend from Duke is his stroke from three, which is a less-than-respectable 33 percent.

Their offenses may come around because they’re both young. Until then, they can just focus on playing hard-nosed defense and pushing Miami to become unquestionably elite on that end. Anything they give on offense is a plus, and the first preseason game was an excellent indicator of the potential both Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow have heading into this year.

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