The dunks. Of course, everyone wanted to talk about the dunks. Tyler Johnson had one, because that’s what he does, even if somehow, so many are surprised when he does it. Justise Winslow had one, because Winslow seems to do a little of everything already, especially, and so uniquely for a rookie, in the fourth quarter. Josh McRoberts had one, because, well, wait, when was the last time he had one like that?
“You’d have to tell me,” a grinning McRoberts said later, after the Heat’s 96-76 victory against the Toronto Raptors on Sun day night. “I don’t know. I’ve been trying to get one. … It felt good to finally get one.”
But as good as that, and those other dunks, felt, something else looked even better. It looked like another of Erik Spoelstra’s combinations had started to find a higher form of collaboration. That didn’t show itself with a slam but with a swish. It came late in Miami’s monster run, with the three aforementioned substitutes accompanied by fellow reserve Mario Chalmers and starting forward Chris Bosh, all of whom had contributed greatly toward turning a tight game into a rout.
It started with Johnson, the franchise’s latest undrafted find, dribbling into the frontcourt, and feeding to McRoberts, 2014’s forgotten free agent, on the edge of the arc. After swinging the ball high above his head, then low beneath his knees, then high and then low again, all to avoid a steal from a pressuring James Johnson, McRoberts slipped a slithery bouncer by DeMar DeRozan, into the waiting hands of Winslow — as usual, the Heat’s precocious rookie had sliced through the baseline to station himself in a perfect place.
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Then Winslow, sensing a double-team like someone who’d played double-digit NBA seasons, whipped the ball past the closing 7-footer Jonas Valanciunas, out to Johnson, who had come closer to offer a target. Johnson then one-touched it back out to Bosh, the silky shooter who has made a multiyear effort to extend his range.
And for the Heat, yet another promising flash of the collective’s potential.
“When I’m at the five, I know where the big is going to be,” said Bosh, who finished with 23 points after a slow start. “I just want to mess with them and pop and get to my sweet spot.”
That sounds a little like what Spoelstra keeps doing with this roster: He’s messing with its lineups until he can find the nightly sweet spot. On this evening, Hassan Whiteside was a statistical force, with 11 rebounds, six blocks and 20 points, including two of the latter that came on a long pull-up jumper that the center called “nice and sexy.”
But Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic and Luol Deng all scuffled offensively, combining to connect on just 7-of-25 shots from the field. Plus, against the first unit — even against Whiteside early — the Raptors were getting much of what they wanted.
So, just as occurred in the Nov. 1 comeback romp against Houston, Spoelstra mixed and matched until a group began mauling an opponent. The score was tied at 53 in the third quarter when Winslow entered for Bosh. Soon after, Chalmers replaced Wade. Then McRoberts came in for Deng. Then Johnson for Dragic. Then Bosh for Whiteside to start the fourth, at that stage with an 11-point lead.
None of those five would come out until 3:26 remained, and the lead was 20.
So why did this particular group work?
“Chris and Josh, for being bigs, move the ball exceptionally well,” Johnson said. “Josh is a big mismatch, because he’s really a point guard. When they’re in the game, the ball goes from side to side really well.”
And that matters because ....
“For us, spacing is huge,” McRoberts said. “We’ve got an unselfish group. If we get our spacing right, and the ball moves, we’ve got a chance to get some good looks.”
But it’s not just the two bigs. Chalmers and Johnson play off each other well; in fact, they seem more complementary than the more gifted duo of Wade and Dragic.
And every player on this team already likes playing with Winslow, or Wins-glue, since he seems to be making everything stick, with whomever he plays.
“He’s our slasher,” Chalmers said. “That’s our little unit.”
That unit put up big plus-minus numbers, led by Winslow at plus-20. The teenager is a team-best plus-71 on the season, even as he’s drawn some of the league’s tougher assignments. On most possessions, he simply refuses to be screened.
“DeRozan is their leading scorer,” Bosh said. “And [Winslow] just made it a nightmare for him [Sunday].”
It might not be a dream every night. But whether with slams, swishes or stifling defense, it certainly earned another.