They’re two of the best words in sports – Game 7 --- and now the Heat gets to experience the delicious drama, the palpable pressure for the second time in two weeks. A trip to the Eastern Conference Finals – and a long-anticipated playoff showdown with Cleveland’s LeBron James – rides on the outcome of Sunday’s second-round finale in Toronto.
“It’s great to know how this team responds with our back against the wall,” Heat rookie Justise Winslow said of a team that is 3-0 in elimination games this postseason and is trying to become the first franchise in NBA history to rally from 3-2 deficits to win two series in the same postseason.
The Heat enters Game 7 with one of the great individual playoff performers of the 21st century, with Dwyane Wade now 12th on the NBA’s all-time postseason scoring list and 20th in playoff victories with 102. He leads the league in baskets this postseason and is averaging 25.2 points in this series.
The question is which of his teammates will serve up something significant and substantive in support on Sunday.
Perhaps it will be Joe Johnson, who was 1 for 18 on threes in this series before hitting his final one Friday. “They've got to go in sooner or later,” he said after Game 6. But “my confidence never wavers.”
Perhaps it will be Luol Deng, averaging just 6.8 points on 34.1 percent shooting in this series, but helping in other ways, after scoring 19.3 per game in the first round.
“I realized in this series early what they're trying to do -- they’re doing a good job of staying home on our three-point shooters,” he said. “My mindset is to be a force defensively.”
Or perhaps the support for Wade will again come from Goran Dragic, whose 30 points in Game 6 were a career playoff high and continued his postseason rollercoaster.
Dragic scored 25, 26 and 20 over the final game of the Charlotte series, and the first two again Toronto, then averaged 13 points on 36 percent shooting over the next three, before erupting to shoot 12 of 21, with seven rebounds and four assists, in Game 6.
With Dragic driving relentlessly to the basket, 12 of his 21 field goal attempts Friday were inside the paint, and eight of his 12 baskets were within seven feet. He vowed to have the “same” attacking “mindset” on Sunday.
"I don't want to go home to Europe [yet]; l still want to be here," Dragic said. “We feel like when we play more aggressive and when everybody is attacking, then that is our game."
That’s where Winslow comes in. With the Heat playing a small lineup, 6-9 center Bismack Biyombo must come out to the perimeter to guard him.
And when Winslow hit a three-pointer in the first quarter Friday, it compelled the Raptors to take notice.
“When he hits those shots, it’s much easier for the whole team,” Dragic said. With Biyombo forced to defend Winslow, “that gives me and D-Wade room to operate and we can penetrate.”
Winslow said before Friday, he hadn’t played center since high school. He said battling against Biyombo, who has a two-inch and 30-pound advantage, is physically taxing.
“That's what we lift weights for,” Winslow said. “You switch a lot during the season on bigger guys so I was used to it. “
Raptors coach Dwane Casey, who often has opted to stick with a big lineup when the Heat goes undersized, said the Heat’s small lineup “had nothing to do with [Friday’s result].”
But Toronto guard DeMar DeRozan says the Heat “made a great adjustment going small. That's something we have to make the adjustment to [Sunday]. We couldn't get them in rotation like we wanted to because of them switching. It took away a lot of passing angles as well. And we have to understand we've got to be dominant when it comes to rebounding.”
Toronto won the rebound battle by only two in Game 6, a victory for Miami considering the Heat’s downsizing.
Just how effective have Miami’s small lineups been? The Heat has scored 138 points and outscored the opponent by 27 points during the 63 minutes when none of its centers (Hassan Whiteside, Udonis Haslem, Amar’e Stoudemire or Josh McRoberts) have been on the floor this postseason. That’s an average of 105 points per 48 minutes.
Of those 63 minutes, Deng has been on the court for 56 of them.
Why is this lineup working? “We’re a quicker lineup that way,” Wade said. “It opened the floor, which is great. Me and Goran are always trying to get in the paint and when we are able to see the floor open, I think we both feel a lot better about our chances.
“We had 40-something paint touches in the first half [of Game 6]. That’s the game we’re trying to get to…. [The lineup] is just unconventional. Sometimes unconventional works.”
More than being unconventional, the Heat will need to be at peak efficiency Sunday. “It's going to be fun to have the crowd against you,” Deng said. “When we look back one day, we'll be very thankful to be in the position we're in.”
The Heat has granted the Memphis Grizzlies permission to interview Miami assistant coach David Fizdale for their head coaching job, a source said.
The Grizzlies showed interest in Fizdale very early last week, but the decision was made for the interview to wait until the conclusion of the Toronto series. A Heat win Sunday could further affect the timing.
The Grizzlies also have interviewed Charlotte assistant coach Patrick Ewing and, according to ESPN, have asked for permission to interview Spurs assistant Ettore Messina. Grizzlies management reportedly also has spoken with former Memphis coach Lionel Hollins about the job.
Fizdale, 41, a former All-West Coast Conference point guard at the University of San Diego, has worked as an assistant for one year with Golden State, four seasons with Atlanta and eight years with the Heat, holding the title of assistant head coach the past two.
“Fiz is a great basketball coach, a dear friend of mine,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Saturday. “He is a tremendous teacher of the game,… a tremendous basketball mind.”
Hassan Whiteside, sidelined the past week with a sprained MCL in his right knee, was ruled out for Game 7 and said he isn’t sure when he will play again.
But he traveled with the team to Toronto on Saturday. “We just want him with us,” Spoelstra said. “Our trainers are traveling with us and he needs a lot of treatment.”
Whiteside said the knee is “getting better. Each day passes, I'm feeling better. I can't really put a measurement on [a target date to return]. It… depends on what the doctors say and how everything is feeling. I don't really want to make anything worse."
If the Heat wins Sunday, it would fly directly to Cleveland to begin the Eastern Conference Finals on Tuesday.
As for Toronto center Jonas Valanciunas, who has been sidelined since an ankle injury in Game 3, Raptors coach Dwane Casey said: “I don’t think he will play in Game 7. His ankle is nowhere close to being ready.”
• The Heat is now 8-1 under Spoelstra in home elimination games. In NBA history, only former Syracuse Nationals coach Al Servi (8-0) has a better record. And the Heat is 10-4 when facing elimination under Spoelstra, the best elimination-game record in the league since he became the Heat's coach.
• Per AP, the Heat is trying to win a Game 7 for the fifth consecutive time, something only the Celtics and Lakers have achieved.
• Toronto is now 0-7 in playoff games when leading in a series, the longest such streak in NBA history.
• According to ESPN, the Heat’s Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem and Cavaliers and ex-Heat swingman James Jones are third all time with 10 wins in playoff series in which their teams trailed. Derek Fisher leads in that category with 12; Robert Horry is second with 11.
• Justise Winslow, listed at 6-7, became the sixth rookie to start a postseason game for the Heat --- joining Steve Smith, Kurt Thomas, Anthony Carter, Wade and Mario Chalmers --- and teammates couldn’t stop raving about him, especially how he handled heavy minutes at center.
“Hopefully this summer he will have a growth spurt and dominate at the [center] spot,” Luol Deng joked. “His screens were great. He was boxing out, battling in there. For a rookie, I keep saying he's very mature and very understanding of whatever role is given. He went from not playing [in Game 3] to starting [in Game 6]. Mentally, a lot of young guys would have checked out.”
• A few numbers to keep in mind if Game 7 is close: Wade leads the NBA with 41 clutch points this postseason, with the league defining clutch as the final five minutes of games (and overtime) with a margin of five points or fewer.
Wade is 15 for 29 from the field and 9 for 10 on clutch free throws in 44 clutch minutes.
All other Heat players have a combined 43 clutch points on 12 for 36 shooting during these playoffs. Joe Johnson is 3 for 12, Goran Dragic 4 for 9.
• Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson will call Sunday's Heat game (on ABC) and all possible remaining Heat games this season (on ABC or ESPN).
• Dragic’s 30 points Friday were a career playoff high, and Elias says the last NBA player whose first 30-point game in the playoffs forced a Game 7 in the second round or later was Kenny Smith in May 1993.
• For news on the Dolphins' latest signing and the Eastern Conference Finals schedule, please click here.