MIAMI — As his team was being pummeled into submission by the power play of the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Finals, Pat Riley recognized what was missing — while also identifying someone on the opposing bench who could help balance the scales.
At the start of NBA free agency, Riley got Bryant.
In Wednesday night’s season-opening victory over the Detroit Pistons at Kaseya Center, the Heat’s president got his payoff, with Bryant energizing the second unit and adding emotion to a night that nearly fell flat in the one-point victory.
As Riley explained in an interview with the Sun Sentinel, Bryant might not have been the sexiest name to claim off the free-agent market, but it was a move borne out of necessity, after Dewayne Dedmon and Cody Zeller had failed to measure up in the middle behind starting center Bam Adebayo.
“We tried to address the one issue that I think had to be addressed,” Riley said of the seventh-year big man, “and we really like this player in Thomas Bryant that can give us more around the paint, at the rim, offense.
“If you go back and look at last year against Denver, we were beat in the paint. That’s it. We were killed in the paint. And also the best player in the league, probably today, in Jokic, dominated us, from that standpoint. So you do have to address those issues that you might not be able to compete again if you get there again.”
Until such a challenge, if there is to be such a challenge, the requirement will be nights such as Wednesday, when Bryant provided eight points, six rebounds, three assists and a steal, with the Heat outscoring Detroit by five in the 15:50 Bryant he was on the floor.
Bryant’s performance was practically comfort food for Adebayo, who got to see the Heat expand a lead while he rested, able to keep his playing time to 32:09 ahead of the grueling three-game-in-four-nights trip that opens Friday against the Boston Celtics and concludes Monday against the Milwaukee Bucks.
“Man,” Adebayo said, “he brings so much energy. You can tell that he does the little things that don’t show up in the stat sheet. He’s talking. He’s rebounding, getting deflections, making his teammates better. And that’s the biggest thing for him to keep doing. I feel like our second unit really feeds off his energy.”
“He’s fired up,” Butler said with a smile. “I think whenever somebody is pouring on that emotion into not only the offensive side of the ball when you get a bucket, but also on the defensive side, that kind of stuff is contagious.
“Spo is always talking about leadership at all levels. That’s a way to lead, so show how much you love to get a defensive rebound or to get a deflection, obviously to score a bucket and get an and-one. But whenever he’s yelling like that, it’s like nobody can mess with us, especially on the defensive side of the ball. That’s what he’s been doing. And he’s going to do that and he’s going to help us in so many ways.”
The NBA, of course, is replete with towel wavers, gesticulators, look-at-me types who play to the crowd.
This, Spoelstra said, is different.
This, Spoelstra said, is genuine, including behind the scenes, when there is no crowd to play to, even drill work with assistant coach Malik Allen.
“He’s been really committed to the process, doing all the extra work, pre-practice, post-practice, film sessions,” Spoelstra said of the No. 42 pick from the 2017 NBA draft who has played for the Washington Wizards, Los Angeles Lakers and Nuggets. “The thing you love about TB is that whatever you see out there during the game at tip, he does literally everything at that motor. It could be a one-on-oh workout with Malik and he’s going full speed, sweat. You need six towels for an hour workout.
“Everything is full speed, and that’s what you admire about him. We’ll be able to fine tune the details in the course of the next seven months, but his spirit is something I’ve really enjoyed seeing.”