MIAMI -- Nikola Jovic got the start for the third straight game in the Miami Heat’s 120-113 win over the Houston Rockets Monday and may have put together the most complete game of his career, drawing rave reviews from his teammates and coaches.
“I love Niko,” Tyler Herro said. “I’m starting a Nikola Jovic fan club.”
For the third straight game, the Heat used a starting lineup of Kyle Lowry, Tyler Herro, Jaime Jaquez Jr., Jovic and Bam Adebayo as Jimmy Butler remains sidelined with a right foot injury.
With the Heat back home from a five-game trip, Jovic made an immediate impact, tallying two points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks in his first 10-minute stint on Monday night. By the time he checked out near the end of the first quarter, the Heat led 32-24.
He finished with a stuffed stat line: six points and eight rebounds in 21 minutes while recording career-highs in assists (six), steals (two) and blocks (two).
Over these last three starts, Jovic has averaged 8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1 steal in 24.6 minutes, marking the most consistent stretch of his career. The Heat are 2-1 in those games, with a loss to the Suns sandwiched between wins over the Lakers and Rockets.
“I just love the way he plays,” Herro said. “He’s so skilled. I think he’s really, really good. So I’m excited for him to get out there and [continue] to build on the minutes and opportunities he’s getting.”
What’s more than just the raw minutes total is how those minutes are coming. Spoelstra is starting Jovic to begin each half, playing him for long, 10-minute spells that allow him to get in rhythm.
After that first 10-minute stint, Jovic got some unscheduled minutes at the end of the first half with Adebayo dealing with foul trouble, then played another extended 10-minute stint to start the second half.
“I love it. I love it,” Jovic said of those long runs. “That’s something different, you know. Normally, I’m the last guy [off the bench].”
But the work Jovic has put in behind the scenes has been noticed by coaches and teammates, leading to this opportunity. He’s been tasked with playing with more focus and physicality on defense, and he’s done that during this stretch. On Monday, he battled with Rockets big men Alperen Sengun and Jabari Smith Jr. on several occasions.
During his third-quarter spell, Jovic fronted Sengun in the post, battling for position and throwing off the rhythm of the possession before coming up with a steal.
Two minutes later, he held off Smith with his left arm while grabbing a rebound with his right hand to end a Houston possession. His free throw a minute later put the Heat up 11.
Those are the plays Heat coaches will call out in film. They represent the kind of physicality they want Jovic to play with.
“That’s probably my biggest focus that I have,” Jovic said. “That and rebounding, especially defensive rebounds. And just staying solid on defense. Those things are going to keep me on the court. Offensively, I'm really not thinking about it. My shots will come.”
Even though Jovic had an off shooting night – missing seven of his nine attempts – that didn’t dampen the impact he made on the game. His rebounding was crucial, he triggered several fastbreak opportunities against a normally leak-proof Houston defense…
… and helped set Herro up for his team-high 28 points with dribble handoffs and screens.
“Niko in his minutes was really good,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t know what his stat line was, but he was able to generate a lot of easy opportunities for us in the open court, loosen things up in kind of random situations where he’s at his best.”
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Jovic starting alongside Adebayo for a while longer, especially with Butler and Caleb Martin still out and Haywood Highsmith working his way back from concussion protocol. Spoelstra called the Jovic-Adebayo combination “dynamic.”
Adebayo smiled when relayed that information after the game. “Niko is special in his own way,” he said. “He can dribble, he can shoot, he can pass, he’s 6-10 and he’s 20.”
If this is a breakthrough for Jovic, then a lot of credit deserves to go to his teammates who have been pouring confidence into him despite the inconsistent playing time for most of the season. Herro and Adebayo couldn’t stop praising him after Monday’s win, and Butler has previously called him part of the future of the franchise.
“Jimmy, Bam, Kyle, Tyler… they are the main guys on the team,” Jovic said. “If they help me, I’m gonna feel great.”
What about Herro’s Nikola Jovic fanclub?
“He’s just bullsh—--g, that’s it,” Jovic cracked before apologizing for cursing with cameras around. “Oh, my bad. I shouldn’t have said that.”
It wasn’t a perfect game. Jovic’s three fouls in 21 minutes were the second-most on the team, and the Heat still need to play a fair amount of zone to hide him defensively, but these are steps toward regular playing time.
“This playing time that he’s gotten in the last several games has been really important,” Spoelstra said. “And when we get to practice tomorrow, it will be much more relevant when we’re going through the teaching points.”