Erik Spoelstra pretty much summed up the state of the Miami Heat on Thursday with nine words: “We’re in a whatever-it-takes mentality right now.”
Facing elimination for the third time in these playoffs, the Heat goes into Game 6 on Friday night at home against the Toronto Raptors knowing two things: center Hassan Whiteside will miss his third game in a row with a sprained MCL and forward Luol Deng is probably going to fight like hell to play through a badly bruised left wrist.
The latter was the good news to come out Thursday.
Deng, who was injured when he tripped over a cameraman in the first half on Wednesday night, does not have a fracture in his wrist, and the team is listing him as questionable with a bruise following Thursday’s MRI.
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Deng said Wednesday night if there was nothing structurally wrong he would fight through the pain and play. That’s not the case for Whiteside, whose injury is more than just about pain.
“I’ve texted with him,” Spoelstra said Thursday on a conference call with reporters. “All he’s doing right now is therapy and rest. I anticipate that will be the same [Friday].”
In Games 4 and 5, Spoelstra tried to fill Whiteside’s shoes mostly with a combination of Amar’e Stoudemire (16 minutes), Josh McRoberts (39 minutes) and Udonis Haslem (20 minutes).
But Spoelstra — in his whatever-it-takes mentality — has also done something unprecedented: He has played 26 minutes without any of those three more traditional big men on the floor. Instead, he’s gone small — really small.
In the Heat’s come-from-behind overtime victory in Game 4, it was the 6-9, 220-pound Deng who was technically the center on the floor for the final 9 minutes 48 seconds of the game.
Together, Deng, Dwyane Wade (6-4, 220), Goran Dragic (6-3, 190), Joe Johnson (6-7, 240) and rookie Justise Winslow (6-7, 225) turned a 79-72 Miami deficit into a 94-87 victory.
On Wednesday in Toronto, with Deng sidelined, Spoelstra went without Stoudemire, McRoberts or Haslem for the final 13:03 of the game and used a combination of Winslow, Johnson, Wade, Dragic, rookie Josh Richardson and Tyler Johnson down the stretch. That group, with Winslow at center, trimmed a 15-point deficit to 88-87 on a pair of Wade free throws with 1:54 to play, but couldn’t get over the hump.
“It just kind of keeps them off balance,” Joe Johnson said of the Heat’s small lineup and its effect on the Raptors. “At times, they didn’t even know who they were guarding. That’s how Josh got those two wide-open threes. We’ve just got to stick with it, man.”
One difference for the Raptors in Game 5 was that coach Dwane Casey kept Bismack Biyombo (6-9, 255) and Patrick Patterson (6-9, 230) on the floor for most of the fourth quarter. In Game 4, Biyombo only played less than two minutes during the Heat’s comeback.
“I think [in Game 4] they went small and we went small, they were obviously stronger than us,” said Biyombo, who after scoring three points and grabbing 11 rebounds in 38 combined minutes in Games 1 through 3 has averaged 11.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and three blocks in Games 4 and 5 as a replacement for the injured Jonas Valanciunas.
“Most of the points the Heat scored were in the paint [in Game 4], and I think [in Game 5] most of the shots they were trying to take were jump shots, which was great for us. They tried to stay away from the paint and we stayed big, so we forced them to play our way instead of trying to play their way.”
Tyler Johnson, who on Wednesday played the longest he’s played (13 minutes) since coming back from shoulder surgery, said Biyombo “definitely” had an effect on the game and “changed the momentum” against the Heat’s small lineup.
“You saw it in the block outs,” Spoelstra said. “We’re putting bodies on them, we’re getting thrown around and they are able to get some important extra possessions. But we had some advantages the other way. That’s the give and take of it.”