There was a phrase to sum up the Heat’s situation Friday.
“Being desperate,” Joe Johnson said.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, sometimes so desperate that you start a lineup that doesn’t seem to measure up. And so, when Erik Spoelstra told his players at shootaround that, with elimination on the line, he would open Game 6 of the second-round series against Toronto without a player taller than wiry, sore-wristed, 6-9 Luol Deng, there was naturally some trepidation.
Johnson has played 15 seasons in the NBA.
Where did this rank among his lineups?
“The smallest,” Johnson said. “Definitely the smallest.”
The margin for error? That was considerably larger. But Spoelstra didn’t see another way. Chris Bosh has been out for the season since early February, even if it wasn’t publicly acknowledged until recently. Hassan Whiteside is out for the rest of this series, and likely longer. Amar’e Stoudemire has been out of sorts in limited minutes against Toronto, and Udonis Haslem — even after some meaningful minutes in the Charlotte series — is also inarguably out of his prime.
“It’s whatever is required right now,” Spoelstra said.
What was required Friday, to pull off this 103-91 victory to send the series to Sunday’s Game 7, was fearlessness without carelessness. Spoelstra’s strategy, of sticking Justise Winslow into Stoudemire’s spot, was fearlessness steeped in sound perspective: “Look, last year at this time, we were all on vacation. So often in this business, people want and search for the easy route. There’s usually not an easy way in a seven-game series.”
And sometimes, as Dwyane Wade said, “It gives the series a different feel. At this time in the series, you need something a little different.”
Yet the smaller-than-small-ball plan would have flopped without the players’ focus and attention to two areas in particular, starting from the very first defensive possession.
After Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan missed a jumper from the left wing, Wade, Johnson and then Wade batted the carom until Goran Dragic snatched the ball, sped up the floor and fed Wade for an easy transition floater.
The Heat would have only three other fastbreak points the rest of the game, but the tone was set for the style and pace of play.
“We did everything completely the opposite of what we’ve been doing,” said Tyler Johnson, one of only eight players who played, all but Josh McRoberts shorter than Deng. “We just didn’t bring anybody to the ball, we just opened the floor and let Gogi [Dragic] or D-Wade or anybody else who got the rebound just push it up and go to work. If they didn’t have nothing, it would at least create a trigger, make [the Raptors] play one-on-one. Yeah, and let that be the trigger. Instead of coming down, slowing up, waiting for the pick-and-roll. Just go.”
That’s because, as Josh Richardson put it, “when the Raptors can line you up on defense, it’s tough to get anywhere.”
Of course, the Heat had to get rebounds first.
Even while undersized.
“We had four or five guys crashing the glass,” Joe Johnson said. “If we weren’t getting a rebound, we were trying to tip it out.”
“The emphasis was everybody’s got to rebound,” Richardson said. “We couldn’t just leave our big wings down low with centers, so everybody kind of stepped down and helped out.”
And so, through the first quarter, the Raptors didn’t have a single offensive rebound, even while giving 6-9 Bismack Biyombo more than nine minutes and 6-9 Patrick Patterson nearly eight. Meanwhile, Miami had 10 defensive rebounds, led by Deng’s four. And while Winslow didn’t have any to that point, he had played his role well, boxing out Biyombo to allow others to swoop in, and hitting his first three-pointer, which forced the Raptors to respect him more.
“Justise did a great job of spacing the floor,” said Dragic, who capitalized by darting through seams for 30 points, his postseason high.
Winslow, who didn’t play at all in Game 3, has now played 91 minutes in the past three contests. And this one, he played out of position, sort of.
“I might have been the center tonight,” he said, smiling.
Maybe. Or maybe it was Deng.
He did play a lot of power forward at Duke, where even there he played with an actual center.
“Tell Jahlil [Okafor] to post me,” Winslow said. “He can’t post me.”
But seriously …
“Whatever position out there on the floor, just to be out there is a privilege, so you want to make the most of it,” Winslow said. “It doesn’t matter, one through five, I just want to be out there.”
He scored 12 points, one of six Heat players with at least nine. He had just three rebounds but, with all eight Heat players having at least that many, up to Deng’s eight, it was enough to negate Toronto’s apparent advantage.
“We just put out the group that we thought would give us the best chance to start the game out strong,” Winslow said. “Playing small has worked out for us this series.”
It had in spurts, but this time Spoelstra had to stick with it, pretty much from start to finish, even while accounting for McRoberts’ surprisingly productive stints (10 points and five rebounds in 18 minutes).
“It’s been well-documented that our offense hasn’t looked like our offense,” Spoelstra said. “You have to credit Toronto. They’ve really slowed us down, taken us out of what we normally do. … We felt like we’ve been playing in mud. We looked a little more like us tonight.”
Just a little smaller.
On a night he — and they — came up big.
The series is now pushed back to Toronto.
Where the Heat will try to crash a party.