Luol Deng stood in the losing locker room at the Air Canada Centre late Wednesday night, unsure about his status for the Heat’s must-win Game 6 back at home on Friday night.
The Heat’s starting power forward injured his left wrist in the first half when he tripped over a cameraman, and eventually the swelling and pain forced him out for good with 5:09 to go in the third quarter. X-rays were inconclusive, and now Deng will undergo an MRI when the team returns home Thursday afternoon.
“I wanted to play through it,” Deng said. “I wanted to get the X-ray and go out there and play. But [the doctor] thought just to be safe because we weren’t sure exactly from the X-rays [what it was].
“I want to be positive. We should know [more] when we get the MRI [on Thursday]. If there’s nothing serious I’ll be playing.”
Through the first round of the playoffs Deng was the best player on the court for the Heat. He opened the playoffs with 31 points against the Charlotte Hornets and finished the thrilling seven-game series as the Heat’s leading scorer along with Dwyane Wade.
But in Round 2, he’s sputtered on the offensive end, averaging 7.8 points and 5.4 rebounds while shooting only 35.9 percent.
Even though his stats weren’t very impressive through the first four games against Toronto, his teammates and coaches said Deng was giving the Heat “whatever it took” to win. That included shutting down Raptors leading scorer DeMar DeRozan through the first four games of the series (DeRozan broke out for 34 points on 11-of-22 shooting Wednesday) to playing center for the final 10 minutes of regulation and overtime in Game 4 in an undersized, undermanned Heat lineup.
“I’m just playing what I’m given and doing what I can do out there,” said Deng, who entering Game 5 on Wednesday had taken as many shots (31) in the Raptors series as he had points in the Heat’s first playoff game.
“Last series, they were giving me a lot of shots, so I was more aggressive and taking my shots. This series, they’re not giving me a lot of shots. They’re staying home. They’re putting small guys on me. Our offense is not built to post up the smaller guys and our passes are not the same as the last series, and that’s because they’re staying home a lot. So, really, for me, it’s just about playing to the role.”
Some players might lose their minds at such a drop-off in scoring opportunities, but Deng hasn’t. And his teammates haven’t tried to force the issue either.
After averaging 12.1 field-goal attempts and 36.3 touches in the frontcourt in Round 1 against the Hornets, Deng went into Game 5 averaging only 8.8 points, 7.8 field-goal attempts and 24.0 touches in the frontcourt against the Raptors. He finished 0 for 8 with four points in 24 minutes on Wednesday.
Toronto has been much more mindful to stop Deng from cutting to the basket and to cut down on his three-point attempts. After making 20 of 39 from beyond the three-point arc in Round 1, Deng is only 4 of 12 from three-point range in the conference semifinals.
“We can’t overdo it, man,” Dwyane Wade said before Wednesday’s game. “Lu had an opportunity in the Charlotte series with the way they were guarding him to have more opportunities than other guys, and this is a different series. He doesn’t have the same opportunities, and we can’t force it. You start forcing it and you really start getting out of your rhythm. That’s not the game you want to play.
“So when he gets his opportunities, we want him to take it. We want him to be aggressive. And when he doesn’t [have opportunities] we want him to continue to play team basketball and figure out a way to win games. It’s not about statistics at this time. Everyone is going to have their series and their opportunities. They’re doing a good job of not letting Lu get open and putting guys on him that aren’t going to give him other shots.”
DeRozan, playing with an injured thumb, was 4 for 17 in Game 4 and entered Wednesday’s game shooting only 35 percent in the series. He scored 13 of his game-high 34 points in the fourth quarter on Wednesday with Deng in the locker room.
To get Deng’s offense going, coach Erik Spoelstra and point guard Goran Dragic said the Heat has to get back to moving the basketball better. In the first quarter of Game 4 on Monday, the Heat had nine assists on its first 10 field goals and Deng had four points on four first-quarter shots. But when the tempo slowed after the first quarter, the Heat had only six assists the rest of the game and Deng took only three shots.
“Lu is a big recipient of our ball movement and pace. Toronto’s been able to take away our pace and also the ball movement,” Spoelstra said. “It hasn’t been a high-possession, 112 to 110 series. But he’s making a great, great impact and that’s what winning players do. It’s not about that last number. He makes winning plays and stays steady through all of it and understands each game is different, series are different. We have to find different ways to win, and Lu knows that maybe better than anybody.”