MIAMI — A losing streak can be the best time, the obvious time, for a coach to make a lineup change. For the betterment of the team.
For the players involved, it can be the worst. If the change “works,” the player who lost his starting job or saw his minutes cut becomes the reason for the losing in the first place.
Which is why, after the Miami Heat’s Duncan Robinson scored 27 points off the bench in a Game 1 trouncing of the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday, his coach’s face scrunched, his shoulders sagged, and his head turned from left to right.
When the Heat were in the midst of a four-game losing skid last month, and in danger of falling from first place to fourth in the Eastern Conference standings, it was Robinson who was benched by coach Erik Spoelstra, in favor of Max Strus. Robinson hasn’t started since, and the Heat haven’t lost since (save for a meaningless, end-of-season game in Orlando in which none of Miami’s regulars played).
“It’s one of the things that I really disliked about making that decision, because I knew, like, on the outside, people would be jumping to a bunch of different conclusions,” Spoelstra said. “In my mind, you know, Duncan was still going to be a major factor, I don’t have to explain it. … I understand all the narratives out there. That’s the tough part about this business, but Duncan is very steady. He understands that even though he’s coming off the bench, he still has a major opportunity to impact the game.”
Discounting that one loss to the Magic, the Heat is 8-0 since swapping out Robinson for Strus. That includes the Heat’s 115-105 win over the Hawks in Game 2, which Robinson, after such a monster outing in Game 1, barely played and didn’t score. Robinson was on the court for not quite seven minutes, not at all in the second half, and didn’t take a shot.
There are a bunch of different factors at work here. One of them is, this is how it goes on the Heat. Outside of Miami’s core of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry and Tyler Herro, almost anyone can see his minutes, shots and stats swing wildly. Two other established vets, Victor Oladipo and Markieff Morris — one a former All-Star, the other a former NBA champion — are for now out of Spoelstra’s rotation entirely.
All season, players such as Strus and Gabe Vincent, two key contributors in Game 2, had stretches where they would follow a big night on the court by not playing at all the next. Strus scored 14 points in 22 minutes, while Vincent turned in a sterling two-way effort with 11 points and two steals off the bench, as he also was one of several defenders locked in on Trae Young. Robinson’s second-half minutes went to Vincent and Caleb Martin as the Heat sought to keep the pressure dialed up on defense.
Robinson, 27, led the Heat in games played (79) for a third straight season and also connected on 200 3s for a third straight season. He didn’t shoot the ball as well as he normally has, as his 3-point field-goal percentage dropped from north of 40 percent last year to 37 percent this campaign. He suffered through a prolonged shooting slump earlier in the year and finished by averaging 10.9 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.6 assists — numbers all below his 2020-21 production.
The Heat awarded Robinson with a five-year, $90 million contract last summer. There is, of course, nothing in the language of the document that says Robinson gets to start and shoot — those things are up to Spoelstra — but Miami locked him up long term and paid him starter’s money because, well, he was envisioned to be a key component of the offence.
Robinson is as quiet and mild-mannered as any Heat player. He also is one of the eight players on the roster who went undrafted out of college. In fact, when Robinson was still in school at Michigan, he was benched during the 2017-18 season, when the Wolverines advanced to the NCAA Tournament championship game.
The full picture is one where Robinson — a young man of humble character who has been through something like this before and had to work for everything he’s received in the NBA — is having to face a situation again he thought perhaps he’d outgrown or, at minimum, didn’t think he was the reason for the Heat’s road bump of four straight losses in March.
He admitted before Game 2 that he struggled personally with the demotion, which was handed down on March 28.
“Absolutely,” Robinson confirmed. “You know, you learn how to wrestle with it; you learn how to deal with it. The main focus, though, is never a disrupter. Never let it impact what we’re trying to achieve as a team, because that’s first and foremost. From there, I got to figure out, OK, this is a new reality, how do I fit in? And how can I continue to help and be the best version of myself and whatever role that is that I’m presented with?”
Strus, 26, is a year younger than Robinson. He was undrafted out of DePaul and never started a game in his first two seasons as a pro. Strus also is a good 3-point shooter (41 percent this season), and where he might separate from Robinson is his ability to defend on the perimeter or in the post. Because the Heat’s rotation was a revolving door of injuries during the regular season, Strus started a handful of games before Spoelstra made the move, and overall, this year, Miami is 16-2 with Strus as a starter.
By moving Robinson to the bench, Spoelstra gave himself more flexibility to feature Butler, Robinson and Herro with the “second unit,” three potentially dynamic scorers with Robinson as the floor spacer.
“I think with Robinson starting or with Strus out there, you’ve still got an elite shooter on the floor,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. “With coach Spoelstra making (a) decision like that, you are strengthening something. Maybe it’s his bench and the combination of players coming off the bench. Those guys are still elite shooters, whether you have one or the other on the floor. I think Robinson, Herro coming off the bench, that’s a problem (for the Hawks), that’s a challenge.”
Spoelstra called having to choose between Strus and Robinson as a starter a “high-class problem.” Game 3 of this series, which the Heat lead, 2-0, thanks in no small part to the buttons Spoelstra pushed, is Friday in Atlanta.
“We got really talented guys. And you know, we’re trying to do something that’s really tough to do,” Spoelstra said. “You know, trying to compete for a title. It’s the hardest thing you can ever do in team sports and requires sacrifice. Sometimes it’s your opportunity, sometimes it’s not, and you just got to give in to the team.
“Duncan has come in big, big moments that he can make a difference. It may be his time the next day, it may not be.”
Vardo: Why Jimmy Butler is like Dwyane Wade
(Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)