Following Wednesday’s win in Dallas, you could find Luol Deng where he has often been during his Heat tenure. In the corner. Only this time, it wasn’t the corner of the court, where he has been parked uncomfortably far too often, but the corner of the locker room, where he sat quietly with a smile.
In the game against the Mavericks, he had been much harder to find, a recent trend that has proven a big benefit to the Heat, as the veteran small forward has averaged 16.3 points in his past four games, many coming off the slices and cuts that have been his signature since he entered the NBA in 2004. Wednesday, he had seven free-throw attempts, only the third time this season with more than four. He has also doubled his offensive rebounding output.
“I would just say I’m active,” Deng said. “Coach has done a good job of tweaking the offense a little bit.”
Appropriately, the improvement started in Chicago, where Deng was a fixture for nearly a decade. There, on Jan. 24, Erik Spoelstra heeded the veterans’ calls for more movement, to create more space and options.
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The tweaks have helped to turn fellow Duke product Justise Winslow loose, too. The rookie is handling more at the top of the circle — but even when he’s in the corner, it’s more of a launch point than a planting spot. And Wednesday, his main highlight happened when he had a running start, taking a pass from Dwyane Wade at the upper edge of the free-throw line, then flying and contorting for a fantastic finish. Since Jan. 20, Winslow has averaged 8.8 points and 7.1 rebounds while shooting 57.1 percent, all well above his season marks.
The changes have allowed the Heat to, at least temporarily, work around its pronounced weakness, the scarcity of long-range snipers, a weakness that might only worsen with the two-month absence of reserve guard Tyler Johnson. In the past six games, the Heat has shot even worse from three-point range (28 percent) than its overall 32.4 percent (28th in league), but is averaging 99.7 points, compared to 95.9 for the season.
It helps to have two more players who feel involved. Chris Bosh said by no longer being stagnant, Deng is “very tough to scout. The defense can’t get a lock on him. … Getting behind the defense is what comes natural to him. He was super aggressive, but within the offense. He’s starting to figure things out, which is great.”
That was true Wednesday, even as Dallas took away some of the cuts they sensed were coming. “But even when I don’t get them, I just feel I’m moving, I’m active,” Deng said. “It just keeps me within the game, within the rhythm. I never said I want a lot of shots on this team. It’s just I’m a better player when I’m moving.”
It has been that way since his rookie season. Deng was born in the Sudan and spent his formative years in Egypt and England, learning the European way of playing without the ball. Then, when he joined Scott Skiles’ squad in Chicago, the system fit that style perfectly.
“I couldn’t shoot when I got into the NBA,” Deng said.
Deng sees his young self in Winslow and believes the latter’s jump shot will continue improving. For now, though, here’s a way for Winslow to engage, though the latter knows he needs to be “smart” about it and not clog the paint with “too many people.”
“We’re all better at going to the basket than spot-up shooting,” Winslow said. “So it’s tough for us all to play to our strengths. But it’s just feeling out the game.”
He didn’t do much baseline cutting in his one collegiate season (“I always had the ball,” Winslow said), but you wouldn’t know it. He’s learning the tricks, not only from Deng, but from Wade, whose mastery started young.
“Growing up, I didn’t have the ball in my hands a lot,” Wade said. “Everybody sees what they see now but, when I was growing, I wasn’t this. … So, to get the ball, I had to learn how to do the little things.”
Rebounding, and especially cutting. He didn’t need that last skill as much early in his Heat career. But to fit roles with the 2008 Olympic team and with LeBron James starting in 2010, he had to re-learn. Now he’s teaching. “Me, Lu and Justise all talk about it, because it’s all a timing thing, of knowing when to do it,” Wade said. “One split second, the defense forgets about you. So, yeah, it’s a skill you can learn.”
The Heat is learning how to add more of it. And for Deng and Winslow in particular, the timing has proved perfect.