Ethan J. Skolnick

Ethan J. Skolnick: Luol Deng at power forward helps Miami Heat combat small-ball

Miami Heat forward Luol Deng, standing, knocks the ball away from Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap, on floor, during the second period in a basketball game on Monday, Dec. 14, 2015, in Atlanta.
Miami Heat forward Luol Deng, standing, knocks the ball away from Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap, on floor, during the second period in a basketball game on Monday, Dec. 14, 2015, in Atlanta. Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Luol Deng isn’t among the NBA’s most arrogant. Still, after banging up his elbow, and banged against bigger opponents, in Brooklyn, the Heat veteran couldn’t help letting loose a little.

“I’m a big man in a small forward’s body!” Deng yelled playfully at his teammates.

Lately, he has certainly acted like one. That included Wednesday night against the Nets, when Deng, who wasn’t getting many fourth-quarter minutes earlier in the season, played the last 7:31 of the game at power forward, as Miami stretched a two-point lead into a six-point win.

This has been one of the quiet Heat developments, the increasingly obvious importance of the most overlooked member of the starting five. Miami was 3-3 when he missed six games due to a hamstring strain, and 0-2 in his first two games back, one of which he didn’t start. But it has won its past three, with Deng playing a season-high 36 minutes in each.

That increased workload is largely due to Deng’s increasingly comfort with, and mastery of, a position he resisted playing last season: power forward. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Deng is playing more time there (49 percent) than at his natural small forward spot (47 percent), with 4 percent at center. That comes after he played 70 percent small forward last season, and has never played less than 58 percent — in many seasons, his secondary position was shooting guard, not power forward.

Deng sizing up has helped the Heat, at least temporarily, solve some of its problems combating small-ball. With Hassan Whiteside and Chris Bosh still struggling some together — Miami’s third-worst two-man combination with at least 200 minutes — Erik Spoelstra has removed one or the other, put Deng at the “4” and received better results.

“It helps a lot,” Spoelstra said of Deng’s transition. “We’re going with different lineups regardless. But I want him comfortable and I want him to embrace and to see that his versatility is a great strength. … And we want him to unlock all of that to help our team.”

It has also eased Goran Dragic’s mind some. The point guard likes having Deng at the “4” so much, because “we play a little bit faster” and “our ball movement is just different,” that he’s constantly encouraging Deng to embrace it. “I told Lu it’s going to be a huge advantage for him,” Dragic said. “Because of his ability, he sets the screen, and I get two men, if I pass to him, he can attack from the dribble. He’s a good shooter, he can make plays. Usually, at the position ‘4,’ he gets the most open shots, especially pick-and-pop.”

Sometimes, Dragic is the one who gets the shot. That happened with 2:24 left Wednesday, after Dragic fed Deng in the post, got the ball back, worked around a Deng screen, then dribbled back from the corner to the top, and nailed a 17-foot step-back jumper with no Net near him.

So is Dragic’s urging working?

“Oh definitely,” Deng said. “I just think that obviously I played the “3” most of my career. But the way the NBA is going now, I think I’m best at the “4,” because of the playmaking and because of the guys shooting. Setting screens and getting teams to mess up the coverage is where we are getting our advantage. And also with the passing and everything, it really screws a lot of things up [for the opponent].”

On the other end, Deng has can switch on pick-and-rolls to cover point guards, in a way clunkier and bulkier power forwards cannot.

Speaking of bulkier, the guy Deng replaced as a starting Heat small forward also played a lot of power forward while with Miami. LeBron James was lethal at the spot, while playing it 82 percent of the time during his final two Heat seasons. But James still remained reluctant and resistant, so much so that Spoelstra termed the team “positionless” publicly just so James wouldn’t hear the “power” forward label. Now, back in Cleveland, James is a small forward 79 percent of his time, as he wants it.

Deng doesn’t mind hearing “power” next to his name. Not anymore. And why would he, when the move is starting to be a source of success, for him and the Heat?

Ethan J. Skolnick: 305-376-3483, @ethanjskolnick

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