MIAMI (AP) — The last time Wayne Ellington played any meaningful minutes in a postseason game was nine years ago.
At the Final Four.
Ellington was the Most Outstanding Player of the 2009 NCAA Tournament after leading North Carolina to the national title. But since turning pro, postseasons have marked the start of vacations for Ellington, who has been in only two NBA playoff games, logging 13 1/2 minutes — all in the fourth quarters of blowouts.
That's about to change.
Coming off a record-setting regular season, Ellington will play a vital role for No. 6 seed Miami in an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series that starts Saturday in his hometown of Philadelphia against the third-seeded 76ers.
"It's so sweet the way it's coming," Ellington said. "I don't want to get religious, but I really feel like it's God's plan the way that everything's worked out, where I ended up at and where I'm headed to. I'm appreciative. After all this time, now to be here, I don't think a player could be more grateful. You couldn't script this."
Ellington set Miami's single-season 3-point record with 227, and also set an NBA record for 3-pointers by a reserve with 218 (he made nine in his two appearances as a Heat starter this season). He's going into the postseason coming off the best game of his pro career, a 32-point night that tied the franchise mark for scoring by a reserve in a game.
As Ellington goes, Miami goes: In his two Heat seasons, they are 34-7 when he makes at least half of his 3-point tries, 43-54 when he does not.
"None of them come easy," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. "He has to work for his shots, he really does. It is great to have a guy that has that ability. When he gets hot, there's not much you can do about it."
Before Wednesday's regular-season finale victory over Toronto, which sealed the No. 6 seed for Miami, Ellington was slumping — shooting 14 for 48 from 3-point range in those games, or 29 percent. The Heat gave players Tuesday off as a needed rest day, and coach Erik Spoelstra was lured out of his office at one point by the sounds of dribbling and sneaker-squeaking on the practice floor.
It was Ellington, putting himself through a 45-minute workout with Heat assistant coach Octavio De La Grana. Their routines, whether it's on an off day or a half-hour before game time, are always the same: cut, catch, shot, swish, over and over and over. And as he watched, Spoelstra found himself simultaneously worried and impressed.
"I almost thought it was too much on a day before a game," Spoelstra said. "But that's the vision of a champion before you're a champion, drenched in sweat, totally exhausted, empty gym with a coach, working your (butt) off."
The result: Ellington was 8 for 12 from deep on Wednesday, leading the Heat rally to a win over the top seed in the East.
What happened Tuesday was not uncommon. The Heat didn't make the playoffs last season, and Ellington was back in the gym about a week after the regular season ended — even though at the time, there was no guarantee he'd be back with Miami this season. He would put himself through intense workouts, sometimes to the point where De La Grana would quietly suggest he take the next day off and enjoy life.
The Heat locker room is filled with hard workers, but teammates say Ellington stands out.
"Wayne's like my right-hand man," rookie center Bam Adebayo said. "He does everything that he needs to do behind closed doors. He takes care of his body, eats right, and I'm learning from him."
And now, the playoff chance is finally here for Ellington.
He sat at his locker for a few postgame minutes after the regular season ended, his thoughts drifting back to that Final Four run and championship moment.
"Up until now, that's been my best experience as a player," Ellington said. "I'm looking forward to trumping that."
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