Highsmith continues to flash NBA skill set for Heat: ‘I just couldn’t take him out of the game’

Wilfredo Lee/AP

Whether forward Haywood Highsmith has been in or out of the Miami Heat’s rotation this season has usually been based on the team’s injury report.

So when the Heat announced just about an hour before tipoff that star Jimmy Butler would miss Tuesday night’s matchup against the Boston Celtics because of lower back tightness, the expectation was that Butler’s absence would create some playing time for Highsmith.

But Highsmith then took matters into his own hands, making Heat coach Erik Spoelstra play him for extended minutes in Tuesday’s 98-95 win against the Celtics at Miami-Dade Arena by making a positive impact on both ends of the court.

“H played so well, I just couldn’t take him out of the game,” Spoelstra said, with the Heat in the middle of a two-day break before closing its three-game homestand on Friday against the Orlando Magic. “Those are the kind of things that you want from a head coaching standpoint. Make us play you because you’re playing so hard and you’re making so many things happen.”

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Highsmith finished Tuesday’s victory with 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field and a perfect 4-of-4 shooting from three-point range, 10 rebounds, one assist and one steal while posting a positive plus/minus of plus-12 in 30 minutes off the bench. It marked just the fourth time he has scored 15 or more points in a game, the second time he has grabbed 10 or more rebounds in a game and the seventh time he has logged 30 or more minutes in a game during his three-year NBA career, and his four three-point makes tied a career high.

“It’s not just the four threes,” Spoelstra continued. “That has nothing to do with it. He could have not scored a single point in this game and he would have had his fingerprints all over this win.”

But the four made threes definitely helped Highsmith stay on the court and the Heat escape with the three-point win. He entered Tuesday’s game shooting just 33.3 percent from three-point range despite being used primarily as a floor spacer on offense.

“Seeing shots go through definitely gives me some energy,” said Highsmith, who stands 6-5 with a 7-foot wingspan, . “But I’m always going to be a defender even if shots ain’t going through. So at the end of the day, it’s all about defense for me. But it is nice when the shots do go through.”

Defensively, Highsmith was either matched up against Celtics star Jayson Tatum or at the top of the Heat’s zone on Tuesday. He played a big part in helping limit Tatum to just 10 points on 2-of-6 shooting from the field in the second half after a 21-point first half.

According to NBA tracking stats, Tatum has shot just 2 of 14 (14.3 percent) from the field this season with Highsmith as his primary defender.

“He was burning the most calories,” Spoelstra said regarding Highsmith’s defense against Boston. “He was all over the place, picking up three-quarter court and settling back into the zone. He was just able to apply that pressure that kind of set the tone for our defense, so it wasn’t just a retreat defense. Then I thought he was really disciplined. It’s really hard to play that hard and expend that much energy trying to take away Tatum’s air space and then when he puts the ball on the floor, to get it just on his shoulder without fouling.”

That’s why the Heat couldn’t go away from Highsmith, who entered with 7:23 left in Tuesday’s third quarter and sat for just 12 seconds the rest of the way. He played 19:11 in the second half, scoring 12 of his 15 points in the final two quarters.

As a result, Heat starting forward Caleb Martin logged just 4:37 in the second half and played a season-low 11 minutes in the game.

“H just kind of inspired the defense in the second half just with his multiple efforts, and then everybody else kind of joined the party from there,” Spoelstra said.

Consistent playing time for Highsmith is far from guaranteed, especially when Butler returns. But he has proven that he can be relied on to play meaningful NBA minutes if he’s needed.

Highsmith entered this season with appearances in just 24 regular-season games during his NBA career after going undrafted out of Wheeling University in 2018. He has already played in 35 games this season.

“That’s kind of the nature of this league,” said Highsmith, whose $1.9 million salary with the Heat for next season is nonguaranteed. “When you’re young and you’re trying to find your spot, you take whatever opportunity you got and you try to do the best with it. My role right now for this team is always just to bring energy and play hard when I’m in there. When I’m not in there, bring life and help the team with whatever I can do. So as long as we get the win, I’m cool with that. I’m always going to be ready no matter what.”


Heat forward Max Strus, whose usual role is as a reserve, has started more games than he’s played off the bench this season because of the team’s injury issues. He has made 25 starts and has been used as a reserve in 22 games.

Strus was again in the starting lineup for Tuesday’s win over the Celtics because Butler was a late scratch. Strus finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and two steals in 37 minutes, with each of his 13 points coming in the first quarter.

“You could look at it either positively or negatively,” Spoelstra said of Strus’ back-and-forth season between the bench and starting lineup. “That’s why I tell him, ‘Isn’t this what you’ve always wanted? To come in there and play a big role whether you’re coming off the bench or starting. What else could you want?’ I think that’s great to be able to plug and play in a lot of different roles.”

The Heat defeated the Celtics on Tuesday despite shooting just 36.2 percent from the field. It marked the Heat’s first win when shooting 36.2 percent or lower from the field since a March 20, 2010 low-scoring 77-71 win over the then-Charlotte Bobcats, when Miami shot 35.9 percent from the field.

“If we have to win ugly, so be it,” Spoelstra said following Tuesday’s win.