Heat rookie Jaime Jaquez Jr. ‘catching a second wind’ on playoff stage: ‘He’s gotten a lot better’

There weren’t many positives for the Miami Heat to take away from Game 1 of its first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics.

But with Game 2 set for Wednesday at TD Garden (7 p.m., Bally Sports Sun and TNT), one of the lone bright spots for the Heat from Sunday’s 20-point road loss to open the playoffs was the play of rookie Jaime Jaquez Jr.

“I feel like he really handled it well,” Heat captain and All-Star center Bam Adebayo said. “He took his shots with confidence and he played winning basketball. We just didn’t win.”

With Jimmy Butler’s knee injury lifting Jaquez into a starting role for the Heat, the 23-year-old finished his first NBA playoff game with 16 points on 8-of-16 shooting from the field, four rebounds, four assists and one steal in 36 minutes.

How impressive is that stat line for a rookie in his playoff debut? Jaquez is the first Heat rookie to log 36 or more minutes and score 16 or more points in his playoff debut since Dwyane Wade totaled 21 points in 42 minutes in his first playoff game on April 18, 2004.

But the experience still included some “Welcome to the NBA playoffs” moments for Jaquez. Celtics All-Star forward Jaylen Brown spun past Jaquez to throw down a dunk 48 seconds into the first quarter, and he then had his own dunk attempt blocked by Celtics guard Jrue Holiday less than a minute later before Celtics All-Star forward Jayson Tatum blew by him for a layup on the next possession.

But Jaquez eventually settled into the game, stepping into a big role on a big stage for a Heat team missing Terry Rozier (neck spasms) and Butler. While posting the second-highest usage rate (an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while on the court) on the Heat in Game 1 behind only Adebayo, Jaquez generated offense for the Heat with his post-ups, drives to the basket and work in transition.

“He gathered himself,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Jaquez. “We need him to be aggressive, so it’s not all just Tyler [Herro] and Bam. And then the decision-making once he gets into the paint, and that’s part of his development. He’s gotten much better in the last six weeks or so reading the defense, reading the backside, reading where the help is coming, reading if cutters or spacers are open or if he can get all the way to the rim.”

Despite how poised Jaquez appeared in his NBA playoff debut, he immediately felt the difference from the regular season.

“You could feel the difference from regular-season games to the playoffs,” said Jaquez, who was taken by the Heat with the 18th overall pick in last year’s draft following a four-year college career at UCLA. “The intensity level, the fans, the energy, everything is just heightened.”

The ups and downs of Jaquez’s first NBA regular season helped prepared him for the playoffs, though.

Jaquez, who played in a team-high 75 games (20 starts) for the Heat in the regular season, averaged 11.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists and one steal per game while shooting 48.9 percent from the field and 32.2 percent from three-point range this regular season. While not one of the three finalists for the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award, that production has essentially made Jaquez a lock for one of the NBA’s All-Rookie teams.

“He’s gotten a lot better,” Spoelstra said of Jaquez’s progression through his rookie season. “I think that’s what happened.”

But there were struggles along the way, especially after missing some time with a strained groin in late January.

Before that injury, Jaquez averaged 14 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.1 steals per game while shooting 51.3 percent from the field and 35.3 percent from three-point range in his first 39 appearances of the season. With that production, he earned the first two Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month awards handed out by the league.

After returning from a six-game absence stemming from that groin injury, Jaquez averaged 9.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists and one steal while shooting 45.4 percent from the field and 27.9 percent from behind the arc in his final 36 appearances of the regular season. Charlotte Hornets forward Brandon Miller was named the East’s Rookie of the Month in January, February and March during that time.

“Right before we shut him down, he started to appear on everybody’s scouting report,” Spoelstra said of Jaquez’s dip in production during the second half of the regular season. “That’s a sign of respect. I think early on in the season, he was just playing freely. I don’t think anybody was scheming against him, and he took advantage of all of that.

“Things changed and then his health kind of forced him to take a step back. And then when he came back, he was dealing with both things. With being out of rhythm, having a slightly different role and then being on a scouting report where teams were a lot more physical with him on his post-ups or drives or anything of that nature.”

With opponents making Jaquez a bigger part of the scouting report because of his strong start to the season, he was forced to adjust and find counters to the way teams were guarding him. As a result, Jaquez is a more complete offensive player than he was a few months ago.

“Where he is now, I don’t care about what his stats are, what kind of numbers he’s putting up, he’s much better than where was in November,” Spoelstra continued. “He can read defenses, he can see the next layer of the defense, his understanding of our defensive system is much better, I think his passing has really improved. We’re grateful for that because we’re going to need all of that now, particularly with Jimmy being out.”

Whether Jaquez’s mid-season slump was a rookie wall or not, he appears to be past that now.

“I was describing it as like catching a second wind,” Jaquez said. “Toward the end of the year, you catch that second wind. The body is feeling good, you’re starting to get really adjusted and now it’s time for the second half of the year. It’s a new season.”

If Game 1 is any indication, this new season may not last long for the Heat. But however long this playoff run goes, Heat coaches and executives hope to learn more about Jaquez this postseason.

“The playoffs always let you know,” Spoelstra said.

So far, so good for Jaquez.