By TIM REYNOLDS
AP Basketball Writer
MIAMI (AP) — Luol Deng’s role with the Miami Heat changed out of necessity in February, when the team lost Chris Bosh for the second consecutive season to a blood clot at the All-Star break.
It initially seemed like desperation.
It’s looking more like brilliance now.
Deng was one of many heroes for the Heat in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. It could be argued that he was the team’s most consistent — or maybe even best — player in the seven games it took for Miami to oust Charlotte and move on to a second-round matchup that starts on Tuesday against Toronto.
"Losing Chris was a big blow for this team," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said after Sunday’s 106-73 win to eliminate Charlotte in Game 7. "At the time we did, it hurt us. But the emergence of Luol Deng was, I think, the most important thing to salvage this season. I’ve got to give Lu a lot of credit. He wanted the opportunity, he got it and he did something with it."
Deng slid into Bosh’s role as starting power forward, and the Heat have flourished. Before the All-Star break, the Heat were 26-20 when Deng played, the veteran shooting 43 percent and averaging 10.6 points and 4.7 rebounds.
Since the break, and including playoffs, the Heat are 23-12 with Deng in the lineup, as he’s shot 50 percent and averaged 15.9 points and 7.8 rebounds.
"I didn’t mind it," Deng said of going to the power forward spot. "I knew that going (there) I would have some advantages. … As much as I can, I’m cutting, I’m setting screens, I’m slipping and I’m really doing whatever I can to make the other team react."
His activity has indeed soared, and so has his productivity.
That was on full display in the seven-game matchup with the Hornets.
Deng averaged 19.0 points per game in the first round, sharing the Heat lead in that department with Wade. Deng shot 54 percent from the field, 51 percent from 3-point range, and his effective field goal percentage (which figures in the extra value of 3s) was 66 percent, 15 percent better than his rate in the regular season.
As he went, so did the Heat.
In Miami’s four wins, Deng shot 68 percent. In Miami’s three losses, Deng shot 37 percent. He scored the first Heat points in five of the seven games, setting the early tone for his team’s offense. And in Game 6, he took two charges in the final 8 minutes to deny Charlotte what would have been easy layup opportunities in what became a 97-90 season-saving Miami win.
And in the end, the Heat made enough plays to advance — despite being pushed to the limit and needing to win two elimination games.
"You have to go through the fire together," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "That’s when you truly grow, when you face adversity together, you get to know each other for real. We’ve been through a lot this year. There have been a lot of emotions with that, but we are still standing. … Yes, we lost Chris at the All-Star break, but he was right there with us in Game 6 and had a tremendous impact with his leadership.
"The group cares about each other. It was a great series to be a part of."
So now they move on, in a hurry.
Only having one full day to prepare for the second round could seem daunting, but the Heat are used to having to do big things on the fly by now. They reacted in a hurry when Bosh went down, and found a way to integrate Joe Johnson immediately into the starting lineup after he picked Miami over other offers when Brooklyn bought him out and made him a free agent in February.
In Game 7 on Sunday, everything clicked.
The challenge now is doing it again in Game 1 on Tuesday.
"We never can replace Chris," Wade said. "I wish we had him. We miss him in late games, we miss some of his big shots. But to be able to add a Joe Johnson, to be able to have a Luol play the way he has, it gave us hope."
It also gave Miami a ticket to the second round.
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