In the 16 games since the All-Star break, Luol Deng has scored 20 or more points six times, and recorded 10 or more rebounds seven times. Yet he might have made his greatest impact for the Heat on a night he totaled just three of each.
He made it Saturday by making Cleveland blink.
Changing course from what he’d relayed to reporters 90 minutes before tipoff, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue scrapped his regular lineup to match the Heat’s smallball starters.
Later, Lue would explain that he was trying to keep Kevin Love from needing to chase Deng all over the court, but he didn’t need to say so. The Heat already knew. The Cavaliers’ switch was a rallying cry before Heat players took the court: they felt the East’s No. 1 seed had felt compelled to adjust to them.
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This is what Luol Deng is doing of late, during what has been, by far, the best stretch of his short Heat career: he’s making people reconsider things. He’s making opponents reconsider how to approach him. He’s making Heat fans, and even management, reconsider how to assess him.
Even after Thursday’s modest statistical showing, Deng is averaging 16.9 points and 8.8 rebounds since the break, compared to 10.6 points and 4.7 before, all while raising his shooting percentage from 43.1 to 49.8. And all while playing a position (power forward) that he’d played sparingly over his 12-year career.
“I’m probably more happy for him than almost anybody because, for a year and a half, he was struggling in a way,” Heat president Pat Riley said. “And the way the game is played today, [power forward] may be his natural position.”
Riley spoke of how Deng’s “got elite numbers right now,” while defending, cutting, sinking three-pointers and getting second shots.
“He’s got a smile on his face,” Riley added, “and I like that.”
That smile took time to sprout. Earlier this week, Deng, who spent his youth in the Sudan, Egypt and England, said he immediately liked the city of Miami after signing in 2014 — because he appreciates different cultures and “everywhere I go, I see people that remind me of myself, people who came from wherever they came from and they’re working so hard to adapt to a new life, a second home.” But he wasn’t comfortable on the court.
“I just wasn’t playing the same way,” Deng said. “It was killing me.”
That was true last season, when the team was beset by injuries and missed the playoffs, and true again early this season, when he understood he wasn’t among the team’s top three options, but “wanted to be creative to where I could get the ball. And then when I came in, we didn’t put in a lot offensively for me. So I stood in the corner, and I played that role.”
There’s a key distinction between Deng and other NBA players. Some demand touches for the sake of shots and stats. That’s not him. He sees himself more as means than end. He simply wants to be part of the play, an actor in the action, “using my IQ to move, cut, and run” and help the play run smoothly for someone.
“The play could be for someone in the post, but I’m cutting from the weak side at least to give it a look,” Deng continued. “Or I could be on the top of the key, where I swing, swing, run into the screen and slip. Somehow I feel like I’m always going to make it work. I might set that screen, I might slip. I’m not that first option, the guy might shoot it from the screen. But I’m just gonna do something where I am involved somehow.”
And he’d rather take 10 shots that feel in the flow, like “my shots,” rather than a dozen if seven or eight feel forced.
The Heat knew this when it signed Deng, but was desperate for a designated shooter, so that fell to him. What’s changed? After staying quiet last season, the long-time Bulls leader spoke up, expressing concerns to Erik Spoelstra in December, and the coach tweaked the offense in January. Then, in February, Chris Bosh’s blood clot scare pushed Deng to power forward, where Miami needed to maximize his speed.
“I feel like I fit right in,” Deng said.
Deng has become closer to several Heat teammates, especially road dining pal Goran Dragic. But he remains connected to former Bulls teammates, who recognize him again.
“You’re back to not stopping moving,” Taj Gibson told Deng after guarding him recently.
Better not blink.