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It wasn’t exactly Magic Johnson starting Game 6 of the NBA Finals, but with the Miami Heat offense struggling for five games against the Raptors, Erik Spoelstra went small on Friday, starting rookie Justise Winslow at center in a must-win Game 6 of the Eastern Semis.
The result? The Heat scored more than 100 points for the first time since the first round, and forced a Game 7 in Toronto on Sunday.
Winslow himself didn’t explode offensively, but the Heat’s small-ball lineup opened up the lane for and ignited Goran Dragic, who scored a playoff career-high 30 points in the Heat’s 103–91 win.
Miami finally broke out of its offensive struggles Friday. Spoelstra said multiple times during the series he was shocked his team hadn’t reached 100 points yet in the second round. With Hassan Whiteside missing his second game with a sprained knee, the key was for Miami to ditch the center position altogether.
Dragic penetrated the lane with ease. Eight of Dragic’s 12 field goals came from within seven feet, as the point guard relentlessly attacked the rim. The Heat also significantly improved their pace of play, with Spoelstra imploring his team to push the ball at all costs.
The Raptors wasted a strong performance from their backcourt, with Kyle Lowry scoring 36 points and DeMar DeRozan adding 23 of his own. However, no other player for Toronto scored more than eight, and as a team it shot only 41.5%.
Aiding Dragic was Dwyane Wade, who poured in 22 points and moved past Hakeem Olajuwon for 12th on the all-time playoff scoring list. Wade scored 13 of his 22 in the second half, helping fend off any hint of a Toronto comeback.
Miami’s commitment to small-ball neutralized the effect of Bismack Biyombo, who had his way with the Heat’s slow-footed centers in Game 5. The Heat in general played with much more effort on the boards in Game 6, grabbing 41 rebounds to Toronto’s 43.
Among those doing work on the glass was Josh McRoberts, who scored 10 points and grabbed five boards (three offensive) in only 18 minutes. Elsewhere, Miami received timely contributions from Joe Johnson (13 points, four boards and a much-needed three pointer), Winslow (12 points and a couple jumpers to keep the defense honest) and Josh Richardson (nine points, one highlight block and one dunk over Biyombo.)
Not only did Game 6 feature a more aesthetically pleasing style of basketball, it bucked one of the series’ biggest trends: The team with the higher-scoring backcourt winning. DeRozan and Lowry outscored Wade and Dragic, but the Raptors’ supporting cast hardly impacted the game.
With a winner-take-all game coming up, it’s clear Miami will need to remain small to help bolster its offense. Of course, another clutch performance from Dragic would help, as the Heat’s point guard has played an up-and-down series. Forward Luol Deng may be needed more in Toronto as well, especially if Miami’s rookies struggle on the road. Deng scored only two points Friday, clearly hampered by a left wrist injury.
Toronto can expect its role players to improve their performance when the series shifts home for its conclusion. But the Raptors better hope they didn’t waste the big games from DeRozan and Lowry, who have gone cold in big moments before.
This series has already taken on many forms. Raptors rookie Norman Powell went from starter to playing three minutes in Game 6, while Winslow went from Game 3 DNP to starter in an elimination game. Whatever happens in Game 7, we should expect to see at least one thing we haven’t before.
A trip to the Eastern Conference finals will be on the line Sunday.