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Kevin Love was tired of playing the heel, now there again is a Heat embrace

MIAMI — To appreciate how Kevin Love came to be so respected so quickly after joining the Miami Heat at midseason last year is to appreciate a moment in the team’s locker room after Tuesday night’s victory over the New York Knicks.

After more than a month off the court as he recovered from a painful heel contusion, Love could have turned the discussion in several directions, including the pair of 3-pointers he converted to immediately help space the floor.

He did not. Instead, he spoke of the player who filled in during his absence and then was shuffled out of the rotation upon Love’s return.

“You got to tip your hat to TB,” Love said of Thomas Bryant. “He’s been playing awesome.”

At 35, Love did not look at it as a teammate making a move for his playing time. He viewed it as a teammate offering support in a time of need.

To Erik Spoelstra, it now is Love returning at a time of need.

“Kevin gives us something different,” Spoelstra said, with the Heat hosting the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night at Kaseya Center. “It spaces the floor in a different way. It gets overreactions that lead to open shots, either for him or for somebody else, that you can’t necessarily script or make a play call for.

“And he just has such great, veteran experience for these kind of games, these kind of matchups and hopefully what’s ahead for us in the playoffs.”

To Love, Bryant’s play helped turn a negative into a positive. Similarly, he viewed his own time off as a potential positive, as well.

“I feel fresh,” Love said, with the Heat next on to a three-game trip that opens Friday against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. “The body feels really good. And I’ve been working hard behind the scenes to keep myself activated.

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“It’s something that I look at as a silver lining, is that I’ll be fresh for hopefully what is another push like we had last year.”

Just as Tyler Herro has taken the long road with foot tendinitis, out since Feb. 26 and still sidelined, Love found himself with his own extended absence, having been out from Feb. 29 until Tuesday’s return.

“Obviously, I felt like I worked hard to get my foot right,” Love said. “It’s just with that heel, it was so tough to actually get back out there and just get that heel bruise, it was pretty severe, to just heal back up and get back out there on the floor.

“But the last two weeks were huge for me and I was available (Tuesday), got my chance and just went out there and felt good.”

Love had been available the previous two games as well, with Spoelstra taking a cautious approach, amid the solid play provided in the interim by Bryant.

Center Bam Adebayo said the impact of Love’s return was immediately felt by himself and teammate Jimmy Butler.

“I mean, obviously he’s one of our leaders, one of our vocal guys,” Adebayo said. “It’s good having him back. He gets to talk in the locker room, He doesn’t do anything but fuel energy into us. And then having him on the court creates great spacing for me and Jimmy.”

While the Heat sent second-year center Orlando Robinson to the G League to bolster the Heat’s affiliate in those playoffs, Bryant remains in reserve. That yet could come into play, with four of the Heat’s next five games as part of back-to-back sets, challenges Love might not yet be up to after so much time off.

“First, it takes a professional like Thomas to have an understanding of that, this is what depth is all about,” Spoestra said. “And obviously we’ve used all of our depth. But the depth becomes more complex when you have more guys available. He really gave us such tremendous minutes the last six weeks when Kevin was out.”