The veteran has been vital in Miami's surge since All-Star break
POSTED: Apr 19, 2016 11:39 AM ET
Luol Deng is not LeBron James and never will be. But now, more than he's ever been since replacing James at small forward for the Miami Heat, Luol Deng is Luol Deng. And that's a big reason why the Miami Heat have played their best basketball of the last two years over the last couple of months.
When the Heat signed Deng in the summer of 2014, they didn't know how well he'd fit in with what they do. They just knew that they needed a competent small forward to replace the four-time MVP.
Deng wasn't a square peg in a round hole by any means and his true shooting percentage in 2014-15 (56.1 percent) was a career high. But the Heat played slow and deliberate and weren't getting the best of their new small forward. And both Deng and the Heat struggled after the All-Star break, when Chris Bosh was lost to a blood clot issue, and Miami fell into the Lottery.
This season, Deng took another step backward. He shot 42 percent and was averaging less than 10 points per game through mid-January. The Heat continued to play slow and deliberate and their starting lineup, which looked great on paper, struggled offensively.
In the first game after the All-Star break, Bosh (a new blood clot issue), Dwyane Wade (knee soreness) and Hassan Whiteside (suspension) were all out. The Heat were in Atlanta, playing the best defensive team in the Eastern Conference. It looked like a sure loss, but the Heat scored 115 points, led by 31 from Deng. He shot 11-for-17, grabbed 11 rebounds and was a plus-16 in a four-point win.
Deng found himself and the Heat found a new way to play. From then on, they picked up the pace, spread the floor, and played less deliberately. They were the most improved offensive team after the All-Star break, with Deng averaging 15.2 points (on 48 percent shooting) and 8.1 rebounds, up from 10.6 (on 43 percent) and 4.7 before the break. The Heat scored an anemic 99.4 points per 100 possessions and were a minus-118 with Deng on the floor before the break, but scored 111.0 and were a plus-144 with him on the floor after it.
"I've always said I'm better on the move," Deng said Monday, after scoring a game-high 31 points in the Heat's Game 1 win over the Charlotte Hornets. "I'm better using my IQ. I don't really try to play with the ball much. The way we play now, faster, being able to cut more and run into screens, it just allows me to use my basketball IQ."
The first possession of the fourth quarter of Game 1 illustrates exactly what Deng is talking about. He started on the right side of the floor, circled around to the left side, came off a pin-down screen from Amar'e Stoudemire, got the ball to Stoudemire in the post, went to screen away, flared to the top of the key, got the ball back, pump-faked a recovering Frank Kaminsky, pulled up for an elbow jumper, drew the foul and hit the shot.
Deng On The Move
Luol Deng's constant motion through this offensive play allows him to get free for the basket and-one.
Deng's patience, as well him exercising his player option last summer and stay in Miami, has paid off. He knew he could bring more to the table earlier in his Heat career, but he had to wait his turn and find his spots.
"It was never me not being able to do certain things," he said. "It was just everybody had to sacrifice. And I think I had a really hard time changing my game. I really wasn't a spot-up shooter in Chicago.
"From the start, talking to [Heat coach Erik Spoelstra] and [team president Pat Riley], we wanted to find ways to get me moving. But it's also about the personnel and who's on the floor. When you got Hall-of-Famers, that's our strength and that's what we were using. And even Goran [Dragic] suffered from that. It's really looking at what's best for the team and that's what we were going with."
Spoelstra knew that both Deng and Dragic would be more comfortable in a more open offense. But Wade and Bosh were the horses that he's been riding for a long time. So the new guys had to take a backseat.
It took us a while to get to know each other and there were some bumps in the road. Through all of that, we've grown a lot closer. And I do lean on him quite a bit now. I really enjoy working with Lu and I enjoy watching him compete.
– Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, on Luol Deng
"Lu is somebody who deeply analyzes the game and he's a task-oriented guy," Spoelstra said. "So he really wants to do things right and fill a role.
"That group had to play slow, more methodical. What it was was a defensive lineup and he embraced it. Was it exactly what everybody wanted out of that? Sometimes it doesn't work out that way. But then, can you still make an impact to winning. And he's always been committed to that."
For Spoelstra, Deng's play over the last couple of months, as well as the bigger role that he's taken in the locker room, is a product of a player-coach relationship that took some work, but has flourished with time.
"It took us a while to get to know each other and there were some bumps in the road," Spoelstra said. "Through all of that, we've grown a lot closer. And I do lean on him quite a bit now.
"I really enjoy working with Lu and I enjoy watching him compete. I had a lot of respect for him before. Now, it's even more. Some of the bumps that we've gone through, our relationship has come out better for it."
Deng will have another decision to make this summer, when he and three other Miami starters are all free agents. He has certainly raised his value with the way he's played as a small-ball power forward over the last couple of months. More important is that he's given the Heat a chance to advance in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
"Lu is now being able to show his versatility," Spoelstra said. "He's been very successful on playoff teams that were half-court, defensive-oriented, mentally tough teams. He had great success in that kind of style and I think he's showing his versatility that he can play a different kind of style as well.
"To be able to do that, ultimately, it says that you're a winning player, to do what's necessary to adapt and find a way to impact winning. And I think that's what defines Lu more than anything else."
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