Between Games 1 and 2 of the Miami Heat’s first-round playoff series against the Indiana Pacers, Goran Dragic had a clear off-day message for Duncan Robinson.
“It’s simple advice: ‘Just shoot the ball,’” Dragic said. “‘I don’t care if you miss 18 shots -- [even] 18 3s -- I want you to shoot every time. Don’t pump fake. We need you.’ And you could see it, he didn’t hesitate today and that’s how we want him.”
Jimmy Butler didn’t bother with the words, he simply force-fed Robinson the ball at the start of the game and watched him drain three straight to start the game.
When the Heat veterans sends a message, it finds the target. After a quiet Game 1 showing in Tuesday’s win over the Pacers, Robinson went off in Thursday afternoon’s 109-102 Game 2 victory. He tied Mike Miller’s franchise playoff record, shooting 7-for-8 -- all on 3s, and finishing with a team-high 24 points as the Heat set the franchise playoff record for made 3-pointers (18).
Robinson was 6-for-6, making another three straight in the third quarter as the Heat built a double-digit lead, before he missed.
“I think I speak for everybody when I say we’re all happy for Duncan,” Butler said. “He did what he’s done for us all year and we know he’s going to continually do that and do his part for what we’re trying to do.”
Butler and Dragic relish their roles as the leaders of a Heat team full of “underdogs,” from ageless franchise cornerstone Udonis Haslem to rookie point guard Kendrick Nunn and the sharpshooter Robinson, each an undrafted player who found a vital role in Miami.
Robinson might be the most improbable story off all, having transitioned from an off-the-radar high school recruit from Maine to a prep school standout and Division III star as a freshman at Williams before making the leap to Division I at Michigan. A sharpshooter at every stop, Robinson was the first to play in both the D-I and D-III men's basketball title game.
But even with the most valuable skill talent evaluators look for in today’s NBA, Robinson still went undrafted.
He lacked that elite athleticism required to project as a NBA prospect, let alone a starter, which is exactly what he’s become in his second season with the Heat.
The Miami Heat look for those diamonds in the rough, guys with that grit, that dog and underdog mentality and all of that. We got a roster full of them."
The franchise’s penchant for searching high and low for players who fit into the Heat culture certainly helped his cause, as did continued physical growth and development. It's a program that has served the Heat well since Pat Riley came aboard more than two decades ago.
“We believe in those kinds of stories,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “We’ve had a lot of guys come through here on a similar path. And this started with Pat. He’s always believed in the player development program and giving guys a chance, going back to his Knicks days with [John] Starks and [Anthony] Mason, guys that have to come up a different way. And then one of our faces of the franchise, Udonis Haslem, was not drafted and came up through our player development program.
“So guys that are committed and have incredible persistence, we want to show belief in them if that truly is their dream. And Duncan is incredibly persistent. He’s got a lot of grit to him. So he’s created a lot of these opportunities for himself, just with his work ethic and his daily commitment to get better.”
Butler, for one, loves the make up this Heat team. He sought the Heat out in free agency last summer for the exact things they are putting on display in this series, for the things Robinson showed in bouncing back from a forgettable Game 1 showing to light up the building in Game 2. There’s a genuine connection and camaraderie with this group that is evident in the way they function, on and off the court.
Butler was the 30th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, somewhat overlooked himself, as the final pick of the first round. He understands the mentality that drives so many who have worn the jersey before him and now, even if he doesn’t understand how the Heat always seem to find the guys who fall between the cracks.
“I don’t know,” Butler said. “Some people look for youth, experience … it ain’t my job to do all that. But I do know that the Miami Heat look for those diamonds in the rough, guys with that grit, that dog and underdog mentality and all of that. We got a roster full of them. I love going to war with these guys. We play so hard, we play for one another and I think that’s the reason we’ve been successful all year long.”
That mentality and the splendid balance on the roster has certainly turned this team -- one that entered this season with little-to-no expectation of being a contender, outside of perhaps their own locker room -- into a real factor with things seemingly wide open in the bubble.
It’s a perfect fit for Robinson, who won’t allow a poor showing to change anything about his grind. Sure, this Heat team has prioritized enjoying each other’s success all season -- Bam Adebayo earned his first All-Star nod, Nunn is one of the finalists for Rookie of the Year and Robinson has emerged as one of the league’s most lethal long-range shooters -- and the collective success that comes with outplaying the external expectations.
But they are mindful never to stray too far from the main thing: the chase for the rings. That’s why he leaned into a relationship with Miller during the four-month season shutdown, like-minds from different eras who understand the Heat culture like only those who have lived it can.
Miller’s 7-for-8 showing from deep came in the clinching game of The Finals in 2012, the first of two championships won by the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh-led “Heatles”. Miller was one of those valued role players who carved out a place in the Heat record books with his shooting, the same way Robinson has this season.
“I don’t think it’ll ever feel normal,” Robinson said, of his name being attached to those lists. “And to be honest with you, I like it that way. It’s incredibly humbling to be mentioned in the same sentence as some of these guys, just because of what they were able to do.
“I just try to be the best version of myself and they certainly inspire me in my play, particularly Mike. He reached out to me over quarantine and we’ve been able to connect. He’s been huge, always been in my ear, been texting me since I’ve been down here. So he’s been like a great vet to me. Just to be mentioned in the same sentence, and he obviously did it on a significantly higher stage … so there’s a lot more for me to go, that’s for sure.”
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