Miami Heat: What to watch for in the team’s season opener

MIAMI, FL - OCTOBER 14: Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat attends the game between the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears at Hard Rock Stadium on October 14, 2018 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - OCTOBER 14: Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat attends the game between the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears at Hard Rock Stadium on October 14, 2018 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images) /

The Miami Heat open the 2018-19 NBA season against its state rival Orlando Magic, a team Miami should be intimately familiar with running out of the gym.

The Miami Heat have struck gold.

No, not because the team will have a fully healthy roster for opening night.

In fact, Wayne Ellington, James Johnson, Justise Winslow and Dion Waiters will all be absent from game 1-of-82, each with a mid-to-lower body injury.

Rather, Miami lucks out because the team will get one of its back-to-back stretches out of the way in the first two days of the season.

The Association’s head office cracked down on such stretches this season, in an effort to minimize games needed to sit players for rest, among other reasons. Getting one done early in the season will only benefit the Heat in the long run.

As an added bonus, the Heat has the luxury of playing within its division for both games, against the Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards, both of which Miami played during preseason.

While the latter of those two teams will pose a greater, and season-long challenge, the Magic are the first hurdle for a team trying to shake the stigma of an early first round playoff exit.

On paper, Miami is the superior team.

Orlando has failed to make the playoffs in each of the last six seasons, instead struggling with finding the right combination of draft picks and trade candidates. So far, the Magic have failed miserably.

But the Heat can’t take the matchup lightly.

A single point separated Miami’s win over Orlando in the preseason game. Similarly, the Magic took the season opener last year over the Heat and ultimately split the season series.

There are sure to be bumps along the road in Miami’s first real game since April. The same could be said of Miami’s conference rivals, the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, who shared a sloppy start to their opener yesterday.

Regardless of the outcome, Miami’s first game has some key aspects to keep watch for, from head coach Erik Spoelstra’s lineups, to shot selection, and defensive rotations.

Who plays when?

Missing four rotation players means Spoelstra will have his hands full in trying to reverse-Jenga the team’s way to victory.

Arguably two of Miami’s best, most versatile defenders, Johnson and Winslow, will be out, meaning switches might get exposed and help defense will have to work over time.

Look to sophomore—it’s so great to say that now—Bam Adebayo to make up the difference. Adebayo showed his defensive chops last year, and the Magic would be a perfect chance to see if he can keep up the effort.

Amidst the jitters of opening night, Adebayo’s ability to settle down and defend inside and out of the arc, could be the crux against a Magic team trying to manage its new prospects.

For 3?

Ellington’s lingering ankle soreness leaves Miami without one of the best shooters in NBA history.

No, seriously, he’s a record-breaker.

Last year, Ellington missed just five games, the first of which didn’t come until February. Like any of Miami’s players, an absence is a definite detriment, but as the Heat’s resident shooter, Ellington will be sorely missed.

So, keep an eye out for who, if anyone at all, tries to slot in as Miami’s catch-and-shoot aficionado.

Tyler Johnson tried to do so at times last season, and Kelly Olynyk can nail some 3-point heaves, but Ellington stands out as the Heat’s premier shooter.

Without him, it’s possible that Miami falls into a rut of launching and bonking triples, creating a self-imposed crutch that will lock them out of winnable games.

Who’s your daddy?

Hopefully, Hassan Whiteside will informally adopt some of the Magic’s frontcourt, fueled by one-part genuine motivation to rewrite last season’s narrative and one-part embarrassment that he called himself the father of an undisclosed number of Chinese nationals.

Tonight’s matchup marks the anniversary of Whiteside’s first career 3, a shot no one knew he had until he made one. Though much of his work should be localized on banging in the paint, forcing any of Nikola Vucevic, Mo Bamba or Aaron Gordon to chase him down on the perimeter, will be a job well done.

Assuming he makes the 3’s, that is.

Defensively, look for Whiteside to return to his former, shot-swatting glory. The Magic’s lineup has a preponderance of bigs, so Whiteside should have his pick of the litter at the rim.

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