Maybe it’s just his personality.
After all, the only thing Luol Deng has to do is look at Goran Dragic and make a face and it makes the Heat’s point guard laugh and forget about how tired and sore he really is from all the running he’s been doing lately.
Maybe Deng’s relentless positivity is masking the warts this Miami Heat team has when it looks in the mirror and seeks to figure out where it stands and where it could stand in this jumbled Eastern Conference.
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But with 16 games left on the regular slate, a 1-2 road trip now behind them, a half-game lead on Charlotte for fourth place all that’s separating them from being a road team in the opening round of the playoffs, the Heat returned home for an important trio of games this week feeling positive about its future.
“We’re getting better,” Deng said. “The East is tight right now. But get in the playoffs and we feel like we can play with anyone. … We think we are good enough this year to come out of the East.”
Said Dragic: “We don’t know who we’re going to play against [in the playoffs], but I think we’ve got the right mentality and right approach. We can beat anybody. [Saturday] we proved that. It was a back-to-back, but we still fought to the end [without Dwyane Wade]. I got a feeling that we’re going to play against those guys [second-seeded Toronto] again.”
The concern now for the Heat (38-28) is how long it will be without Wade. After fighting through a bruised left thigh to play Friday in Chicago (he was 3-of-15 shooting), Wade didn’t think he could do much to help the Heat Saturday. That could spill into Monday.
The bruise, Wade said, is something that takes his explosion away and he’s confident that even when he does return to the court it will take time to get that explosion back.
So, until Wade is back to being Wade, the Heat, 9-4 since the All-Star break, will try to continue to do what it has for the last three weeks without Chris Bosh — try and find ways to pick up the slack.
Joe Johnson did it with a Heat-high 28 points Saturday. Deng did it with his corner three-pointer with 3.1 seconds left that sent the game to overtime.
Since moving over to power forward to replace Bosh at the start of the break, Deng has averaged 17.5 points, 9.2 rebounds and posted seven double-doubles. He’s as big a reason as any why the Heat has outrebounded all 13 teams it’s played since the break, and why positivity is flowing through the locker room.
“[We] have a group that’s coming together despite everything,” coach Erik Spoelstra said pregame Saturday. “And it’s the time of year that it’s go time now or you’ll have a lot of regrets.”
Deng, whom team president Pat Riley said was one of the most important free agent signings in franchise history, doesn’t want to have any of those.
A free agent this summer, Deng, who turns 31 next month, believes there’s enough talent and chemistry around – even without Bosh – for the Heat to make a deep playoff run. He and Dragic see a deep talented bench, one bolstered by the emergence of rookie Josh Richardson and one that could find more depth if Tyler Johnson returns as he hopes in early April. Plus, Deng and Dragic say, there’s plenty of good chemistry to go around.
“I think the one thing you can say about our team is we’ve got all good guys,” said Deng, whose friendship with Dragic has really sprouted this season. “No matter the outcome of the game, we like each other. We spend a lot of time together on the road. It always makes it easier when you get along with everybody on the team – just a lot of high character guys – and that helps a lot on the court.
“Most of the time when you look at teams that win it all and you can call it luck or whatever, but most of the time they’re the healthiest team. Like Cleveland and Golden State last year — not that Cleveland lost because of health — but it definitely affects your team and the chemistry. We feel like we’ve done a good job of responding whenever somebody has gone down, doing the best we can and that’s a lot of credit to every guy in this locker room staying prepared and ready and paying attention.”
Monday: Nuggets at Heat
When/where: 7:30 p.m.; AmericanAirlines Arena.
TV/radio: SUN; WAXY 790, WAQI 710 (Spanish).
Series: Heat lead 30-27.
Scouting report: The Nuggets (28-38) have won four games in a row and are five games back of the final playoff spot in the West. It took a triple-double from Hassan Whiteside for the Heat to emerge with a 98-95 win in Denver on Jan. 15.