After losing center Hassan Whiteside to a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee in Game 3 against the Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra faced a choice: stay big and hope that Amar'e Stoudemire, Josh McRoberts and Udonis Haslem could fill the 7-footer's shoes, or go small by leaning more heavily on his crop of wings, betting that the increase in athleticism and effort would make up for the size Miami would concede on the frontline.
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After watching Stoudemire and Haslem struggle against the likes of Bismack Biyombo and Patrick Patterson in Games 4 and 5, and with his team needing a win to stave off elimination, Spoelstra decided to open Friday's Game 6 small. He inserted rookie Justise Winslow in his starting lineup alongside veterans Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, Joe Johnson and Luol Deng — a lineup that had barely seen the floor in the regular season, but that had looked good in limited run earlier in the series, outscoring Toronto by 16 points in 23 total minutes.
That configuration meant Winslow, a 6-foot-7 20-year-old who spent the bulk of this season at small forward, would line up at center, matching up with the bigger Biyombo on both ends of the court.
"Whatever's necessary right now," Spoelstra said. "We just liked the dynamic to help us try to get to our game that looks familiar to us."
Whether the downshift represented a revolutionary difference-maker is a matter of some debate. (Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, it seems, isn't convinced.) But going small with a five-out attack focused on pushing the pace, spacing the floor, widening driving lanes, and creating more high-value looks in the paint and from beyond the arc sure seemed to unleash Dragic, who turned in yet another stellar performance in a pivotal game to help keep Miami alive:
Dragic scored a career playoff-high 30 points on 12-for-21 shooting to go with seven rebounds, four assists and just two turnovers in 38 minutes, leading the Heat to a 103-91 win that knotted this best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series at three games apiece and forced a winner-take-all Game 7 back at Air Canada Centre on Sunday afternoon.
The speedy Slovenian seemed to be shot out of a cannon all night long. With or without the aid of a ball screen, he blew past the initial defense of Raptors point guards Kyle Lowry and Cory Joseph to get into the lane. If Toronto's help defense swarmed to him, he looked for shooters, creating two wide-open corner 3-pointers and a layup off the strength of his drive-and-kick game. If nobody rotated over, he took it all the way to the cup, going 8-for-14 in the lane and giving Raptor defenders fits all night.
"The lineup had nothing to do with it," Casey said. "It was just our ability to keep the ball in front of us and contain the basketball, and keep it under control."
One of those Dragic-created corner 3s came from Winslow, who entered Game 6 having made just two of his 14 triple tries this postseason, but who made a pair of jumpers early that got the Raptors to show just enough respect for him to keep Biyombo from acting as a roving help defender to plug up the paint.
"Justise, he was spacing the floor, and it was much, much easier for us to attack," Dragic said.
On the other end, the Heat's wing-heavy groups fought like hell to overcome Toronto's size advantage. Miami didn't give up an offensive rebound until the second quarter, allowed just eight in the game and outscored the Raptors in second-chance points. They outrebounded the Raptors in the first half, and finished with just two fewer boards than Casey's club despite Biyombo and Patterson, both 6-foot-9, each logging 33 minutes.
"We stayed big," Casey said. "That should have been to our advantage, it was our advantage in Game 5, and we did not do a good job of going to the offensive board and taking advantage of it [...] if they're going to play small, we've got to make sure we dominate the glass, and we did not do a good job tonight from that standpoint."
Toronto trailed for the final three quarters on Friday, but did make pushes to get within two possessions in the second, third and fourth frames behind a second consecutive excellent collective outing from Lowry and noted shoelace-rocker DeMar DeRozan, who combined for 59 points and totally carried the Raptors attack:
But even with Lowry (36 points, four rebounds, three assists) and DeRozan (23 points, four rebounds, two assists) knocking down shots and getting to the line, Toronto struggled to sustain offensive rhythm and flow.
"All-Stars are going to be All-Stars," Spoelstra said. "Does that mean every single game? No. And the competition also says that, if they do have a game, that doesn't mean you have to give that game up."
The Raptors logged just 10 assists on 34 made baskets, as the smaller Heat's switch-heavy defensive scheme shut down passing lanes, kept drivers out of the paint and invited low-percentage deep 2-pointers. Non-Lowry-and-DeRozan Raptors combined for just 32 points on 41.2 percent shooting, as Miami's wings did a much better job than their counterparts of keeping the ball in front of them and forcing Toronto to try to make tough contested looks. Nearly 72 percent of the Raptors' field-goal attempts came with a defender within 3 1/2 feet, according to NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data, compared to 61 percent of Miami's. (The Heat also got a bit fortunate that Toronto went just 7-for-23 on comparatively uncontested looks. Make-or-miss league, and all that.)
While Toronto's supplementary pieces struggled, Miami's did their part. Winslow scored 12 points of his own, set screens that led to 11 more and worked his tail off to box out Toronto's bigs. Joe Johnson added 13 on 5-for-10 shooting, as he finally got some shots to fall.
Deng, who had been listed as a game-time decision after injuring his left wrist during Game 5, started, played a team-high 40-plus minutes, pulled down eight boards, dished a pair of assists and contested 13 shots. And the three reserves in Spoelstra's tightened rotation — Richardson, McRoberts and recently-returned-from-injury guard Tyler Johnson — combined for 24 points on 18 shots.
As has so often been the case, though, it was Wade who carried the load down the stretch. The Heat superstar scored 13 of his 22 points after halftime, including eight in the fourth quarter to help Miami pull away. He also helped key an active defensive effort that limited Toronto to only 19 fourth-quarter points on 5-for-20 shooting and just one field goal over an 8-minute, 40-second stretch. The Heat began the game by attacking like their season depended on it; they ended it by defending like their lives did.
"I don't want to go home to Europe," Dragic said with a smile. "I still want to be here."
Now, he and the Heat are off to Toronto, looking to become the first team in NBA history to come back from 3-2 deficits to win multiple series in one postseason. It's a tall task, but one that Miami can accomplish if its small lineups can keep doing big things.
"We've got to go up there and muster up a lot of energy," Wade said. "They're going to have their crowd behind them. We've just got to make sure that we start the game off the right way, give ourselves a chance early, and make it a fight."
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