Miami Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra describes the playoff series against the Toronto Raptors as “complex.” Goran Dragic calls it “ugly.” Dwyane Wade said “intense.”
Whatever it is, now tied 2-2 after the Heat’s 94-87 overtime win Monday and back in Canada on Wednesday night, it is not attractive basketball. You want basketball that takes your breath away, you had to watch Steph Curry dancing around the court and pouring in a record 17 points in overtime in Golden State’s comeback victory at Portland at 1:45 a.m. Tuesday. You want to see a team clicking on all cylinders you had to watch LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers sweeping Atlanta.
But the Miami-Toronto series is kind of a mess, with neither team finding its groove or playing its style. Perhaps they are saving their peak for the Eastern Conference finals against the Cavs.
Spoelstra said the Heat was “more recognizable” doing “the things that brought us success” on Monday but admitted “it’s changing fast; at times teams are able to get to their game and a lot of times they’re not.”
Toronto coach Dwane Casey said of Wade’s gritty effort: “There was nothing fancy about it. He put his head down and went to the rim.”
Pretty? No. This is like a mediocre boxing match with plenty of whiffing and clinching.
Taut? Yes! Three overtimes in a postseason series is a first for the Heat. Only Oklahoma City and Memphis had more with four in 2014. Boston and Chicago had three OTs in 2009. Only five points’ difference through four games.
There’s no denying the exciting finishes have put fans at the edge of their seats, the same way indigestion puts you at the edge of your seat.
Wild swings in momentum, with six lead changes and 12 ties Monday. The Heat led by nine at the start of its horrid third quarter, then trailed by nine with 6:40 left, then outscored Toronto 11-4 in overtime as Casey lamented how his team “let it slip away.” Shooting that makes you wince, as Toronto’s slumping All-Star guards Kyle Lowry (fouled out) and DeMar DeRozan (he has a thumb injury) combined to make only 6 of 28 field goals and the Heat went 1 for 15 from three-point range. Both teams are scoring about 10 points below their typical output, and the Heat’s manic 153-point spree in its first two games against Charlotte is a distant memory.
The most interesting matchup, Hassan Whiteside versus Jonas Valanciunas, is moot with both centers injured. What we witnessed Monday was a “small ball” mashup. Lots of scrambling, switching, busted pick-and-rolls, helter-skelter drives through the lane. Two 6-9 “big men” battled in the post — Luol Deng and Bismack Biyombo.
“I expect the games to come down to the last four minutes,” Deng said. “It’s going to be whoever keeps their head.”
Now it’s a best-of-3 series and Toronto has home-court advantage. If the Heat is to survive and advance to the showdown against King James that everyone wants, it’s going to take savvy decisions by Spoelstra and a collective stepping up by Wade’s supporting cast. The Dwyane Wade Show is electrifying, as we watch the 34-year-old age like fine wine, reaping the benefits of an offseason regimen and in-season workouts that have kept his body fresh.
But Wade needs help. With his game-high 30 points he moved past Magic Johnson and into 13th place on the NBA all-time postseason scoring list with 3,723. In the Heat’s two series, he has moved past four Hall of Famers (Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Scottie Pippen and Johnson) and one future one (Dirk Nowitzki).
“I worked my tail off to get my body steeled to the point where I can play at an elite level,” he said. “Whenever I’m tired I go back to those moments over the summer. Someone has to pay for it — that’s my mentality. I love that I feel as good as I did the last game. I’m having fun.”
But Wade stepped down from the postgame podium gingerly and admitted he just wanted to go to sleep.
What the Heat has to do is what it did in microcosm in Monday’s overtime period. Each player contributed a critical answer on defense and offense. All five scored. They held the Raptors to 2-for-6 shooting, outrebounded them 4-1, forced four turnovers.
Joe Johnson, 0 for 13 on three-pointers in the playoffs, came through with two blocks, a steal and an eight-foot fadeaway jumper.
Rookie Justise Winslow, after being benched the previous game, made a perfectly-timed tip-in, then later a big rebound he kicked out to Deng, who was fouled and made both free throws.
“Whether Justise is hitting shots or not he’s locking in defensively and making plays people might not see,” Deng said. “As a young player, he’s beyond his years.”
Dragic finished off Toronto with a driving layup and free throw, and Wade added an exclamation point with a steal and dunk.
“Down the stretch that was probably the best that we’ve trusted, moved the ball, had secondary drives from different guys where we’ve had better patience and poise in the last 10 seconds of the clock,” Spoelstra said.
Those five minutes gave the Heat a blueprint and hope for what looks to be a seven-game trek. At one point, a Wade layup attempt ended with the ball sitting still on the flat piece of metal that attaches rim to backboard. Perched there like a bird in a tree, tauntingly, it wouldn’t move.
“The basketball gods didn’t want it to end,” Wade said. “Every game is going to be a grind, a battle. I like the fight and resolve we have.”