Linda Robertson

Deng running free as Heat offense runs like a champ

Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, talks to Luol Deng, during the third quarter of the Miami Heat’s victory over the Charlotte Hornets in Game 2 of their playoff series at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Wed., April 20, 2016.
Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, talks to Luol Deng, during the third quarter of the Miami Heat’s victory over the Charlotte Hornets in Game 2 of their playoff series at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Wed., April 20, 2016. pportal@elnuevoherald.com

As Dwyane Wade modestly pointed out in the postgame locker room after Miami’s kinetic 115-103 victory over Charlotte on Wednesday night, he has played for some pretty decent teams in his 13 seasons with the Heat, but none quite like the one that has scored 238 points in its first two playoff games.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “And we still don’t understand how special we can be.”

The beginning of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals has provided a graphic illustration of the Heat’s remodeling since Chris Bosh was sidelined with a blood clot in his leg.

It’s been a tale of two seasons, and the post-Bosh season, following the All-Star break, has seen the Heat go from 29th in the league in scoring average, with 96 points, to first in the East, with 108. Then the floodgates burst open against Charlotte as the Heat set franchise postseason records for scoring in a game, a half, a quarter and for field-goal percentage in a half (74.7 percent in the first half Wednesday).

It’s impossible to say the Heat is better without previous leading scorer Bosh, especially at this early stage of the NBA’s second season, but the incarnation of this pedal-to-the-metal Heat team never would have materialized had Bosh remained the linchpin of coach Erik Spoelstra’s infrastructure.

We never would have witnessed the fluid new look on offense and defense, all the bodies in motion, and certain players would not have blossomed as they have been compelled to do in Bosh’s absence.

Thus fans are treated to a double dose of white-hot anticipation as the Heat heads to Charlotte for Saturday’s Game 3: How long a run can the Heat sustain? Will the drag-racing style keep working, or crash and burn?

Wade said he’s reminded of his rookie season, when the Heat hit its stride late.

“We’re still reaching our potential,” he said. “We can win another way, too. We can win ugly.”

But Wade, who is relishing his physical rejuvenation this season, enjoys winning pretty. He scored 28 points on 50 percent shooting Wednesday on slithering drives, fadeaway jumpers and acrobatic fingerrolls.

“Everyone wants to play like the Golden State Warriors, but not everyone has that personnel,” he said. “Give credit to the coaches for finding a style for our personnel once Chris went out.”

Spoelstra and his players have done an “unbelievable job” of adapting, said Charlotte coach Steve Clifford, one of the masterminds of the game.

Point guard Goran Dragic, who was itching to run from the time of his arrival, has finally found his ideal pace. Rookies Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson have found more confidence as the Heat plays with more zip. Hassan Whiteside has thrived with the changes, and he was a perfect 8 for 8 from the floor Wednesday, although he had trouble defending Al Jefferson’s crafty moves.

But the player who is really peaking at the opportune time is Luol Deng. It’s as if he’s been set free — to float and roam and slash and zag. Last year and the first half of this season, Deng felt uncomfortably static and constricted. He was assigned by Spoelstra to fill a need at small forward and be more of a spot-up shooter, focusing on three-pointers from the corners, even though he and Spoelstra knew he was miscast in that role.

But after Deng — a two-time All-Star at small forward with Chicago — shifted to the power forward position he made a remarkable adjustment. After two playoff games he leads the Heat in scoring and three-pointers, is second in rebounding and is shooting 70.8 percent. In Game 1, he ran circles around Charlotte and scored a team-best 31.

“With me moving to the four position, for us to be effective we knew we had to play fast,” Deng said. “It had to be a team effort. Everyone had to take more attempts.”

The 6-9 Deng could have left the Heat last summer after a frustrating season, but he believed in the team and Spoelstra. Playing the four gives him advantages.

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“I knew teams would try and post me up, and I would go down and battle and get the team out of it,” he said. “On the other end I focused on moving, getting back to how I played in Chicago and not standing still — cutting, slipping, setting screens.

“Teams are trying to play small, Goran was looking to play fast, I knew we could benefit. By setting quick screens and being aggressive I had better looks than I did the first half of the season. Bigger guys are guarding me so I can catch and go.”

Deng is thrilled to return to the playoffs after missing the past three (the first because of complications from a spinal tap). Adaptation has been key for him and the Heat, but he said the team’s biggest strength is the sense of faith in the locker room, no matter who is pouring points into the Heat’s cascade.

“We’ve accepted that it’s going to be a different guy every night,” he said. “That’s what makes a good team tough to stop.”

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