For a player who had never played in a Game 7 before, Heat forward Luol Deng looked quite comfortable Sunday afternoon at American Airlines Arena.
Deng scored seven of the Heat’s first 10 points as Miami advanced to the second round with a 106-73 victory over Charlotte.
Deng averaged a team-high 19 points per game in the series, his highest postseason average since 2007, when he was still a member of the Chicago Bulls.
The forward opened the series with a 31-point explosion, then finished it with a workmanlike 15 on Sunday afternoon.
“I never got out of character,” Deng said of his series. “I never took a shot that I shouldn’t be taking… I kept allowing the game to come to me.”
Deng allowed the game to come to him a little bit more often during the second half of the season, raising his scoring average from 11 points per game to 15 and his rebounding average from five to eight.
“The emergence of Luol Deng was the most important thing to salvage this season,” guard Dwyane Wade said after the game.
In typical Deng fashion, the forward redirected the compliment.
“I really appreciate that,” Deng began before quickly continuing, “there’s a lot of reasons why our season turned around… the fact that we’re playing fast… Josh Richardson being able to perform the way he has.”
Swinging the focus to Richardson should redirect at least some of it right back to Deng, who sits at the locker next to the rookie.
“He talks to me about stuff every day,” Richardson said of Deng. “Telling me [to] stay focused on and off the court… especially now.”
Deng agreed that the series served as an on-court playoff lesson for the young Heat roster.
“This is what the NBA playoffs is,” Deng said. “It’s never over… it could turn around real quick.”
For Deng — a player whom Wade credits with holding the team together throughout a tough season, and whom Richardson gets daily advice from — a lack of previous playing experience in winner-take-all games could not be a problem, so it wasn’t.
“I felt like Game 6 was Game 7 for us,” Deng said. “When we went to Charlotte, if we lost, the season would be over.”
Deng’s Game 7 started just like Games 1 and 6: the forward had the ball in a position to score and gave the Heat the opening lead.
While his ice-breaking baskets in Games 1 and 6 were both jump shots, he started the scoring in Game 7 with a driving layup.
Goran Dragic assisted on all three game-opening scores.
“The ball kept finding me somehow,” Deng said of his first-minute success. “I just try to see how they’re playing… if I make shots early, I’ll be able to drive the ball.”
After his opening layup, Deng drove the ball plenty and found shots for others. He also hit two three-pointers in the third quarter as the Heat extended its lead.
Deng and the Heat open up their next series Tuesday, and the veteran is ready for his first second-round appearance since 2011.
“You don’t plan how the series is going to go,” Deng said. “However it goes, you try to learn from it.”
And as far as it goes, the Heat will continue to learn from — and lean on — Deng.