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Pat Riley issues challenges to Miami Heat players

Riley was his usual candid self during his end-of-the-season media presser.

NBA: NBA Draft Combine David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

When Pat Riley speaks, people listen.

And when he issues challenges to the players who play in a “culture” he’s crafted for decades, then they’ll likely be all ears.

Riley, the longtime Miami Heat president, whose tenure has been so prolific that he’s rightfully earned “The Godfather” persona, was his fiery self in 2022’s edition of his annual end-of-the-year presser: a savant with words.

The 77-year-old, who insisted on Tuesday he isn’t retiring in the foreseeable future, was both complimentary and constructively critical of multiple players who just helped propel Miami to Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals.

He also navigated the waters of professing belief for this current core, whose genesis he accredits to when Miami signed Jimmy Butler in 2019, while opening the door ajar enough for an enticing development that could draw outside help.

Such moves, however, don’t happen overnight. More importantly, it frequently requires effort from the other variables.

Until that materializes, if it even does, Miami, who you can argue missed out on a second NBA Finals appearance in three years because of one missed shot, will need to improve on what they now have in order to make it back to the final dance.

Given Riley’s historical sentiments for competition, that he was stung by the loss to Boston – no surprise there, given the opponent – and that he mentioned “winning” countless of times on Monday, the goal remains the same.

This is how they could get there, from the experienced leader’s perspective:

Tyler Herro won the NBA’s 6th Man of the Year award and was second in scoring for Miami (20.7 PPG) after the regular season. His production dipped in the playoffs (down by 8 PPG), where he missed Games 4-6 against Boston and looked like a shell of himself in Game 7, fighting through a groin injury.

Riley was impressed by Herro’s overall development, specifically pointing out his ability to score in different ways: floaters, 3-balls, pull-up, and drives. The incoming fourth-year player, who can sign a max extension this offseason, said during his exit interview that he feels he’s earned a starting position next season.

Riley made it clear Herro must work for it first.

“If he wants to be a starter, we will see in October. It’s something you earn,” said Riley, who later emphasized it twice:

“Come to training camp and win it.”

The key is for Tyler to become a “two-way player.”

“You have to improve in certain areas of your game. I saw improvement in his defense this year. He’s got quick feet. He has to get stronger again. [Add] another 10 pounds of muscle mass. He still has a lot of upside,” Riley said.

Someone who’s often associated with “upside” in Miami’s roster is Bam Adebayo, the 24-year-old big man from Kentucky who’s a perennial candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. His sometimes lack of aggression to score on offense, which was common in the postseason, has drawn criticism.

An argument can be made that Bam’s multiple tasks and the effort they require – playmaking and pushing the pace among them – justify his lack of scoring. Riley even joked that Herro, Max Strus, and Duncan Robinson should award half their pay checks to Adebayo for the great looks he provides for them with dribble hand-offs and screens.

But Riley, who coached three different teams to the NBA Finals, admits a conversation will soon be in store with current Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra on how to get Adebayo’s field goal attempts up.

“This could be a year, and Spo and I will talk about it, where [Bam can] be developed in a way to improve his consistent shot ability every night: getting 15 shots every night, quality shots that he can get and create.

“He can be very prolific at times, but it can’t always be effort, on running, on lob dunks, on little floaters. There is another level we need more consistency to create good shots.”

Riley also referred to Adebayo when talking about internal development in finding another reliable scorer who can take the load of Butler in the postseason.

While it’s clear Bam has the talent to play that role for Miami, its recurrence remains a puzzle to solve.

One of the advantages of bringing in Kyle Lowry when he was initially signed was that Adebayo could steer his attention towards more scoring rather than having it as an equal slice of the pie of everything he brings.

The missed games, however, had Miami needing a Plan B.

Riley acknowledged that it was a tough season for Lowry in terms of the games he missed due to personal reasons (which Riley opted not to specify) and nagging injuries. The most significant one that comes to mind was his hamstring ailment which plagued his postseason.

Like Spoelstra, Riley shared his desire to have Lowry in prime shape come training camp in October, but was more direct about it.

“The bottom line with me – hoping you can get the most out of a player – is that you have to be in world-class shape. You just have to be. That is something that [as] you get older, there’s a point of diminishing returns. He definitely is going to have to address that and it will be addressed.”

Lowry, who signed a $90M, three-year contract with Miami last summer, averaged 13.4 points, 7.5 assists, and 4.5 rebounds a game in the regular season, and he was instrumental in landing the Heat the #1 seed.

In his injury-hit NBA Playoffs, Lowry’s numbers dropped to 7.8 points, 4.7 assists, and 3.6 rebounds a contest while shooting 29.1% FG.

Riley also disagreed with Lowry’s notion that it was a “wasted year,” although he acknowledged the win-or-bust mindset a player like Kyle in his career point would have.

Riley also expressed the next steps he’d like to see Duncan Robinson and Max Strus to take, while sprinkling in similar thoughts for Omer Yurtseven.

The abilities of a specialist like Robinson, who signed a $90M contract to stay in Miami, are traits Riley believes can still be useful to a team. But he wants to see more contributions from the former Heat starting SG that equate to winning.

“He has to turn the corner on pick-and-roll,” started Riley, who did acknowledge that he noticed Robinson’s improvement in going downhill.

“The next part of his development is going to the basket and finishing and making plays and being very aggressive. It’s not just off random ball cuts. Defensively… he’s got to get better. We hang our hat on that. Duncan can improve. That message has been delivered to him many times.”

It was a similar recommendation for Strus, who took over for Duncan in the starting unit towards the end of the regular season.

“Max has a very unique game and a very unique shot. Max has to be able to go downhill and finish. He’s got to make a little pull-up jumper. His game has to change a little bit and he knows it. He’s got the ability to do it.”

Riley particularly noted how Strus has to learn how to counter defenses when they take away his best trait, using his tough shooting series against Philadelphia and Boston for example.

Max shot 41% from three before the postseason but only 33% when he played there. He hit only 27% against the Celtics and 35.3% vs the 76ers.

Strus, who considers himself the best shooter on the team, mentioned during his exit interview that he takes responsibility for the team’s shooting woes the last few weeks.

Riley, meanwhile, didn’t want to blame Miami’s elimination on their shooting.

Yurtseven stepped up at the starting center spot when both Adebayo and back-up Dewayne Dedmon were injured mid-way through Miami’s campaign. The Turkish standout impressed with his scoring and rebounding, often recording double-doubles, which Riley went as far as to call “prolific.”

Another one of the Heat’s G-League finds, Yurtseven played way less minutes when Miami got healthy and made the playoffs, but that hasn’t stopped the clamor from some Miami fans for him to earn more playing time, if not start altogether – even next to Adebayo.

“He definitely needs to improve in strength, mobility, footwork, back to the basket, defensively,” Riley mentioned about Omer.

“Probably, they could,” he said about the Yurtseven-Adebayo pairing. “[It] depends on who the other three guys would be.”

If that does happen, then Riley will play a role in determining who they are, along with who makes up the entire team.

As he said – he feels an “obligation” to see this current build through.

Chances are he won’t stop until they finally get back to the finish line.