Miami Heat Index: Data
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In all four Finals series of his career, LeBron James hasn't been his best. Is his body failing him?
It may have been the defining moment of Game 5, maybe of the 2013 NBA Finals.
With about 6:20 left in the third quarter and the Miami Heat down by four points, LeBron James deflected a pass from Gary Neal and Mario Chalmers scooped up the loose ball.
Bad news for San Antonio: A LeBron James fast break had ignited.
Normally in these situations, James would fly down the court and power his way to the basket. No one is better or more frightening than James when he has the ball in transition. In the Eastern Conference finals, Pacers point guard George Hill said, "There's only one person scarier than (James) and that's God."
But this time was different.
Chalmers fed the ball down the court to the streaking James. The only man he had to beat was former teammate Danny Green, who started sprinting toward the basket.
But James slowed down. No, this wasn't strategic hesitation. James looked like he tried to push the turbo button and instead hit the emergency brake. Not only did it allow Green to catch up to James, but Green squared up in front of James before they even reached the basket.
James then stumbled through a sloppy Eurostep and tried to leap over Green, but Green rose up and blocked his halfhearted layup.
Danny Green had just blocked a LeBron James fast-beak layup.
James then recovered the ball underneath the rim, but instead of rising up and dunking it, he rushed up a layup. It fell off the rim and landed in the Spurs' hands.
As the other nine players sprinted the other way, James stood in the paint and watched. When Tony Parker blitzed through the Heat defense and laid it in, James had barely crossed half court.
From that moment on, James looked exhausted. Deferring shots and loafing on defense, he looked weary and worn out.
He looked human.
James is true a physical specimen. He is built like Karl Malone, but runs faster, jumps higher and exerts more power than just about anybody in the league. If a science lab engineered the perfect athlete to play the sport of basketball, it might look something like James.
But he is not built out of a science lab. He is human, and he is reminding us of that every time he reaches the Finals.
James has been to four Finals in his career and each time his play has fallen off. So far in this Finals, he is shooting 43.6 percent, down from his regular-season rate of 56.5 percent. He is struggling to get to the free-throw line (he didn't take any in Game 3) and his scoring average is down to 21.6 points per game.
When James struggles in the Finals, the general public immediately points to psychological factors to explain his dropoff. He is mentally weak. He shrinks under the pressure. He lacks Michael Jordan's killer instinct.
But what if it has nothing to do with that? What if his body is failing him? What if it's a simple case of physical exhaustion?
To illustrate James' late-season swoons, the chart below shows James' player efficiency rating (PER) as the season has progressed during his Finals runs of 2007, 2011, 2012 and 2013, starting with the regular season all the way to the Finals. PER bottles up all of the box score statistics to estimate a player's per-minute productivity where a 15.0 rating is average.
(The thick red line is the average of his four Finals runs combined and the lighter lines are the four individual Finals runs).
Notice that nosedive at the end? Hard not to.
James' productivity doesn't just slip, it falls off a cliff. In 20 Finals games, James has registered a 19.7 PER, which is down significantly from his conference finals PER of 28.2. So far in the current Finals, James' PER is 22.1, down from his regular-season rate of 31.6 and a conference finals rate of 30.
In fact, James has seen his productivity decrease from the conference finals to the Finals in all four seasons.
What's going on here?
People forget because he won the title, but James' body shut down in last year's Finals.
At the end of Game 4 against the Okalahoma City Thunder, James laid on the ground unable to get up under his own power. Midway through the fourth quarter, James had to be carried off the court because of a leg cramp, which seems minor. But it forced James to remove himself from crunch-time of an NBA Finals game.
Of course, James came back to the court practically on one leg and hit two critical jump shots, the last of which was a 3-pointer that iced the Heat's 104-98 victory. James' body had crumbled beneath him just minutes earlier, but the win washed away any concerns.
Many attributed James' 2011 collapse to something more psychological than physical, but here we are in the 2013 Finals and James still doesn't look like his normal, dominant self. He is missing shots in the lane that he normally hits. He is taking more jumpers than usual. His fast breaks are no longer automatic points. James is not pressuring the Spurs' defense as much as we expected, especially late in Game 5, and there are times when he's not sprinting back on defense when everyone else is.
So why is this happening to James and not anybody else?
Perhaps it's because James is asked to do more than anybody else.
He's tasked with running the Heat's offense like a point guard, setting screens like a big man, defending the best player on the other team in crunch time regardless of size and generally be everywhere and everything the Heat need. Erik Spoelstra calls him "1-through-5" because he can be any player he wants.
No one has the physical gifts of James, but it's also probably true that no one has the physical responsibilities of James either. And we're left blaming his intangibles because his body looks like it will never break down. Complaining about fatigue at this point in the season isn't an option, either.
James can turn it around like he did in Game 5 of the 2012 Finals, bouncing back from the leg cramps with a triple-double that clinched his first title. But if he doesn't, it might be because his body, not his mind, is failing him.
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After dominating crunch time in the regular season, the Heat have gone cold in the playoffs.
With 5:00 left in the game, and the Miami Heat up by three points, George Hill caught the ball on the left wing and ran a pick-and-roll with Roy Hibbert. As the Heat defense swarmed Hill, the point guard sent a pocket pass to the rolling Hibbert, who then dumped the ball to David West at the rim. West rose up for a layup and got fouled by Dwyane Wade.
And thus started the Heat’s latest debacle in clutch situations.
The advanced stats database at NBA.com defines clutch situations as any occasion when the score is within five points in the final five minutes of the game. After the Wade foul call with 4:54 left, the Heat subsequently blew the lead and Game 4.
Here are the gory details of the Heat’s performance in clutch time Tuesday night:
- The Heat shot 1-for-7 from the floor while allowing the Pacers to shoot 4-for-8. The Heat’s only basket was a contested 3-pointer early in the shot clock from LeBron James.
- The Heat collected two rebounds; the Pacers hauled in eight.
Christopher Trotman/Getty ImagesWho has been the key to Miami's recent dominance? Don't forget about Chris Andersen.
MIAMI -- The Heat’s win streak has now reached 26 games, which is more victories than nine NBA teams have this entire season, and seven shy of the all-time record set by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. Yes, it’s tempting to look beyond the horizon these days, but let’s look in the rearview mirror.
How have they done it? How come, all of a sudden, they look unbeatable?
Forget LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for a moment. Put aside Ray Allen and Shane Battier's 3-point barrages and Udonis Haslem’s toughness. That core has been with the team all season long and they weren’t exactly rewriting the history books with their play earlier in the season.
So what, then, has been the difference-maker?
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Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty ImagesDon't look now, but LeBron James' crunch-time numbers during the streak are off the charts.
It's beginning to feel like "Groundhog Day" with this Heat team, as it pulled out another win in a tight game Monday. The Celtics enjoyed a five-point lead with 4:56 remaining in the game, but the Heat went on an 11-4 run to close out the game and won by two points.
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Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesAfter another brilliant outing, LeBron James is on target for the most productive season ever.
James was masterful once again, dropping 40 points, 16 assists and eight rebounds in a double-overtime win Tuesday. No one has matched those numbers in a single game since Basketball Reference started keeping game logs in 1985-86. Sure, he benefited from two overtimes to compile those numbers, but that's a season high in points, a career high in assists and an exclamation point to end his ridiculous month of February.
For perspective, he shot 64.1 percent in February. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that's the first time an NBA player has shot over 64 percent in any calendar month since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in March 1983 (minimum 200 field goal attempts).
What's crazy is that James never shot below 50 percent in any of his 13 games this past month. His worst shooting performance? That was 52.9 percent this past Sunday. He missed fewer shots the entire month (78) than Rudy Gay missed in a span of less than two weeks (Gay missed 83 shots between Feb. 6 and Feb. 19).
Not a bad month.
Not a bad season.
In fact, Tuesday's outing against the Kings pushed James into uncharted territory.
James is now on pace to eclipse Wilt Chamberlain for the all-time single-season PER record of 31.8, which The Stilt accomplished in 1961-62 and 1962-63. James currently stands at a 31.9 PER. For the uninitiated, PER is a per-minute rating of a player's productivity, and 15.0 is league average. PER does have its blind spots, particularly on the defensive end of the floor, but it gives us a pretty good barometer for James' historic play.
If James keeps this up, he'll have the record all to himself. As you can see by the list below, James' incredible shooting efficiency sets him apart, along with his ability to distribute the ball. Here are the Top 10 single-best seasons by PER, courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com. (Note: blocks, steals and turnovers were not fully recorded until 1977-78.)
After yet another dominant outing Thursday night, LeBron James is doing everything in his power to prove that he is peerless in this game. Against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder, James registered 39 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in the 10-point win. James is averaging 27.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists while shooting 56.5 percent from the floor and 42.4 percent from downtown this season.
Simply put, he is just on another level right now. After a torrid streak into the All-Star break, his player efficiency rating stands at 31.5, just 0.3 off the all-time record set by Wilt Chamberlain in 1962 and 1963. PER is a per-minute rating of a player's productivity, and 15.0 is league-average.
To illustrate how James has separated himself from the rest of the league, it's time to dust off another Tableau visualization. Here you'll find the PER of every qualified player in the league (minimum 15 games and 10 minutes per game) and his minutes per game. Players are shaded by their age (older the player, the darker the font).
As you can see, it's James, then Durant and then everybody else.
Age is listed as of Feb. 1. Data courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
Take a peek at the data provided by SportVU and you'll see the Heat in a whole new way.
The numbers used in the everyday box score, the stats-driven exec of Miami’s next opponent points out, are measurable but not particularly meaningful.
A box score tracks blocks but doesn’t care whether they’re recovered. It tracks shot attempts but not touches. It tracks assists on made shots but not assists on free throws or passes that led to good shots. It tracks offensive rebounds for big men but not screens that lead to equally important scoring opportunities.
For years, Morey has searched for new sources of data outside the box score to gain an edge. One of those sources is SportVU, the new 3-D camera system from STATS LLC that tracks every movement on the court. Fifteen teams subscribe to this analytical gold mine and -- surprise, surprise -- the Rockets were one of the first to jump on board.
SportVU can tell you how many touches each player gets in every game, how long he possesses the ball and how many dribbles and passes he makes. It can inform us how fast a player ran on average during a game, how far he ran and how often he jogged rather than sprinted down the floor.
And that’s just the beginning.
The Heat have not yet subscribed to SportVU, but they have played in nine road games with SportVU cameras installed (small sample size alert!). What does SportVU say about the defending champs in these games?
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AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillLeBron James ran away from the Lakers in the clutch, accounting for 14 of Miami's final 16 points.
Right off the bat, James smothered Bryant like a wet blanket and forced him to take an off-balance jumper. As the ball bounced off the rim, James dove to the loose ball on the ground, snatched it from Bryant's grasp, stood up and plowed down the floor in transition. All five Lakers packed the paint and did everything in their power to wall off James' attack.
But they forgot about Ray Allen. Seeing this, James found Allen on the wing with a no-look pass and Allen drilled it. Assist for James. Heat up three.
Next trip down the floor, James pulled up on Metta World Peace and swished a 20-footer. Heat up five. Later, James fed Dwyane Wade for a midrange jumper. Assist for James. Again, next time down the floor, James hit Allen on a curl and Allen nailed a tough shot over Dwight Howard. Another assist for James.
Then with the game clock ticking down under a minute, James took World Peace off the dribble one-on-one, pulled up for a midrange jumper and it splashed through the net. Heat up six with 49 seconds left. After a failed Lakers possession, James got the ball back again after an inbound pass, drove to the rim past Pau Gasol and threw it down as Gasol could only push him in the back. And-one. James made the ensuing free throw.
Miami ended up winning 99-90 at the Staples Center on a back-to-back in dramatic fashion, but the game was essentially won when James decided to clamp down on Bryant with 5:27 left in the game.
From that point on, the Heat finished the game on a 16-7 run with James matching the entire Lakers' team point-for-point with seven points alone. But what's more amazing is that if we include his four assists, James accounted for 14 of the Heat's final 16 points.
A common complaint about James is that he hasn't hit many last-second shots in his career, which is true. But Thursday's game showed one reason why: He often doesn't let it come to that.
Thanks to James' overwhelming performance in crunch-time on both ends of the floor, the Heat almost beat the Lakers by double-digits when it was a tie game with 2:32 left. Simply put, James made a close game not a close game anymore. For this reason, James remains a ruthless clutch player even without dramatic last-second shots.
And he kills the opponent in more ways than one. On the season, James has played 86 minutes of clutch time, which is defined by NBA.com as when the game is within five points in the final five minutes. In those 86 minutes of high-stakes basketball, James has registered 62 points, 28 assists and 24 rebounds. The assist total is what's most astounding when you think about it. He has more clutch assists this season than any other player. Actually, James has more clutch assists in 86 minutes than Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook have combined for in 213 minutes.
If we put it all together on a per-36 minute level to better wrap our heads around it, we find that James is averaging a staggering 26 points, 11.7 assists and 10 rebounds in crunch-time. That's right, James is playing at such a high level in the clutch that he's averaging a triple-double on a per-36 minute level. No one else really comes close.
James isn't the ruthless scorer in clutch situations that Kevin Durant can be (Durant's averaging a gaudy 39.1 points per 36 minutes in those situations), but James dissects opposing defenses like a surgeon. Of those 28 assists, 11 of them have gone for 3s. In other words, while James has scored 62 points on his own in clutch time, he's also set up an additional 67 points with his passes. When James has been on the court for the Heat in clutch circumstances this season, he has accounted for 129 of the team's 207 points, or 62 percent of the team's scoring.
With James controlling the game in so many positive ways, it's no wonder that the Heat have outscored opponents by 50 points in the clutch this season with James on the court. And Thursday's performance against Bryant -- widely considered the most clutch player in the league -- and the Lakers was yet another example of James' winning ways when it matters most.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.
Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images
Udonis Haslem grabs a rebound from Chris Bosh's hands last week against Dallas -- a notable trend.
It seems the Heat have a rebounding problem.
The defending champs rank in the bottom 10 overall in rebound rate and second to last on the offensive glass. This has generated heaps of criticism toward both Chris Bosh and the Heat's decision to embrace small-ball after winning the title with it.
But here's the thing: The Heat have already ditched small-ball, and when they did, they became a worse rebounding team.
This is Miami's rebounding paradox. Sunday's game against the Washington Wizards marked the one-month anniversary of Udonis Haslem's promotion to the starting lineup. On Dec. 6, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, looking to shore up the increasingly problematic second unit, decided to insert Haslem into the starting five against the New York Knicks and bring Shane Battier off the bench as he rehabbed from his strained MCL.
We can debate all day about the importance of starting lineups or the lack thereof, but this was a landmark move in the Heat's season. Spoelstra, at least temporarily, put the title-winning formula on hold by slotting two traditional big men next to LeBron James.
Spoelstra went "big" and by doing so, it accomplished a couple of things. One, it allowed Joel Anthony to anchor the second unit's previously porous defense. So far, that's worked out and the defense has improved.
Secondly, it gave the Heat an additional big man next to Bosh to help on the boards. Haslem is known as the Heat's rebounding specialist. Earlier this season, he became the franchise's all-time leading rebounder, and last season he ranked eighth in the NBA in defensive rebound rate.
But the interesting thing is that Haslem's promotion has had the opposite effect on the Heat. Since Haslem entered the starting lineup, the Heat have ranked 24th in rebound rate. Before then: 21st.
Dig deeper and the issue becomes clear: The Heat's "big" starting lineup has gotten crushed on the boards. The five-man unit with Haslem next to Mario Chalmers and the Big Three has played 189 minutes together this season, which ranks 26th in the league, according to NBA.com's advanced stats tool. Among the top 30 five-man units with the most minutes in the NBA, that Chalmers-Wade-James-Haslem-Bosh lineup ranks 28th in rebound rate, grabbing just 45.5 percent of all available rebounds. A 45.5 percent rebounding rate would rank last in the NBA behind the Dallas Mavericks.
And it gets worse: That lineup gives up 19.3 second-chance points every 48 minutes -- easily the highest rate among those 30 lineups. It's actually the highest rate of any of the top 50 teams in minutes.
You want to know which lineup ranks 17th in rebounding among those 30 most common lineups?
The Heat's "small" starting lineup with Battier. Yes, better than the Haslem lineup.
How can this be?
There's a big difference between rebounding on the individual level and on the team level. Individually, Haslem does very well on the boards; he averages 9.6 rebounds per 36 minutes, which is the highest in Miami's rotation. But on a team level, the Heat have actually done worse on the boards when he's on the floor this season.
You know who in particular has done worse with Haslem on the court? Bosh. In fact, Bosh tallies 9.2 rebounds per 36 minutes with Haslem on the bench, according to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool. When he plays next to Haslem: 5.8 rebounds per 36 minutes.
This is the opposite of the Bargnani Effect, the phenomenon when Bosh became an all-world rebounder when he played alongside Andrea Bargnani (the anti-Mr. Clean on the glass). When Bosh plays next to Battier in that starting lineup, he grabs 11.0 rebounds every 36 minutes. Those are numbers that Heat fans want to see from Bosh. But Bosh's boards have been cut in half when he plays next to Haslem.
Does Haslem steal Bosh's rebounds? And why do the Heat's rebounding numbers suffer when Haslem is on the court?
These are very good questions, and it's tough to pinpoint the answer. It could hint at something that probably doesn't get the attention it deserves: rebound hogging. That's when a player "steals" live rebounds from his teammates that would have been safely recovered anyway. This seems quite selfish when you think about it, and "selfish" is the last word people (especially those within the Heat organization) associate with Haslem, so something else is probably going on here.
It could very well be the case that when Haslem steps onto the floor, the other Heat players simply get lazy and let him swallow up all the boards. Bosh may be as guilty of this as anyone. Yes, Haslem has been a strong rebounder over his career, but he's 32 years old and his rebounding numbers are their worst since 2008-09 once you adjust for playing time. He may not be up to the task anymore.
That the Heat have rebounded worse with Haslem this season flies in the face of all the conventional wisdom. Bosh has actually been a solid rebounder this season, but not when he plays next to Haslem. It may not be Haslem's fault, but if the Heat aren't demonstrably better as a team on the boards with him on the floor, what exactly is he out there for?
That's a tricky question for Spoelstra that's being made even trickier lately. Haslem collected 12 boards on Sunday, but here's the dirty little secret: they rebounded better as a team when he was on the bench (53.7 percent of all available boards with Haslem on the court, 60.0 percent off the court).
That's the Heat's problem in a nutshell. But can they solve it? It's fitting that their next test comes Tuesday against the Pacers, one of the top rebounding teams in the league. Yes, the same opponent that prompted Spoelstra to put Battier in the starting lineup and go "small" in the postseason. And we all know how that turned out.
The Heat were outrebounded by the Timberwolves 52 to 24. Heading into Tuesday's game, teams that registered a plus-28 in the rebounding margin were 106-3 since 1985-86, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
One hundred six wins. Three losses.
Here's a chronological visual, starting with the most recent:
Now go ahead and add an "L" to the beginning of that string. Somehow, the Timberwolves managed to lose a game in which they were plus-28 in the rebounding margin. First time in 60 previous such instances.
And the Heat won by 11.
Rebounding margin has its flaws. Sometimes a positive rebounding margin means the other team just missed a lot of shots, because the defensive team usually recovers a missed shot. So rebounding margin is not the end-all, be-all. Even so, the Timberwolves shot 43 percent from the floor, which is a ton of available rebounds the Heat didn't gobble up. No two ways about it: The Heat got bludgeoned on the boards.
Yes, the Heat got crushed on the boards, but just as notable is who got dominated. Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem didn't collect a defensive rebound all night. That's happened to Bosh only one other time in his career while playing as much as he did on Tuesday (27 minutes).
Six hundred eighteen such games. Happened only once.
And Haslem? The Heat's all-time leading rebounder played 18 minutes on Tuesday and registered a goose egg in the defensive-rebounding column. Like Bosh, that's happened only one other time in his career. Five hundred seventy-three games. Happened only once.
On Tuesday, it happened to both Bosh and Haslem.
So how did the Heat win?
LeBron James had a big hand in it. He registered 22 points, 11 assists and 7 rebounds to go along with 4 blocks on the defensive end. That's a complete game. How many players have matched that stat line in the past 15 years?
Here's the list dating back to 1985-86:
James (5 times).
Chris Mullin (once, in 1995)
Clyde Drexler (once, in 1988)
Charles Barkley (once, in 1986).
So, no one other than James had done it in the past 16 seasons. Impressive feat.
But here's the kicker: LeBron didn't turn the ball over even once.
How many players have accomplished at least 27-11-7-4-0?
No one -- until Tuesday night when James did it. To top it all off, he had a zero in the personal-foul column, too.
The game gets weirder. Joel Anthony had more assists (1) than starting point guard Mario Chalmers (0). Anthony had 9 assists in all of last season. Chalmers has registered more than 9 assists in two separate games this season. So there's that.
And then there's this: The Heat tallied 14 blocks to the Timberwolves' 1.
How often does that happen -- registering at least 14 blocks while the opponent gets just one? It's more rare than your birthday. Just 14 times in the past 28 seasons or once every two seasons.
"We just have to keep fighting and figuring out ways," James said.
Rob Carr/Getty Images
After Monday's clinic, we go inside the numbers on Miami's exceptional ability to finish at the rim.
It was like a batter slapping a single in the bottom of the seventh to break up a pitcher's perfect game. Except no one really noticed.
In the third quarter of Miami's win over Atlanta on Monday, Chris Bosh caught a pass from LeBron James and soared toward the rim for a slam. Unfortunately, Josh Smith had other ideas. Rotating over, Smith leaped toward Bosh's outstretched arms and disrupted his momentum just enough to send the ball bouncing off the rim.
Bosh missed the dunk.
There's a reason why this particular shot was notable: That errant shot helped prevent the Heat from throwing a perfect game at the rim. It was one of only two shots at the rim the Heat missed all game. They shot an incredible 16-for-18 (88.9 percent) at the rim against Atlanta's front line.
How remarkable is that?
Consider the following:
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LeBron James and Ray Allen have been on the winning side of every close game this season. Why?
MIAMI -- Remember the pass that LeBron James made to Udonis Haslem in the closing seconds against Utah in March of last season? The one that didn't end up going the Heat's way?
Ray Allen brought up that play after Saturday's win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, a game that ended with James passing to Allen for the game-winning 3-pointer. Haslem missed that controversial shot last March and the Heat ended up losing the game.
But after Saturday's win, Allen said he and his former Celtics teammates agreed with James' decision to pass.
"And he got criticized over it," Allen said. "People were talking about, ‘Should he have made that pass?’ Everybody where I was [in Boston], we all said he made the right play. That was the play, if you had it again, you make that play again. That’s what being a team is. You rely on your guys."
That play keeps up coming up in the Heat locker room these days, because James is still making that play. But now it's netting winning results. In fact, going by the NBA's definition of "clutch" -- when the score is within five points in the final five minutes -- the Heat haven't been beaten. Miami is 8-0 in games that go into the clutch this season, the only unbeaten team left in such situations.
The question is: How are they doing it? The short answer: by playing nothing like they did two seasons ago.
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How has Chris Bosh become one of the NBA's most efficient centers? He plays chess with his jumper.
But typically the last-one-standing honor belongs to Chris Bosh. After the rest of his teammates leave for the showers, you can usually spot Bosh splashing 20-footers from the top of the key. There's a rhythmic feel to his routine. You can hear the flick of the wrist as he releases the shot, then the splat of his shoes hitting the hardwood and then the classic swish of the net. Flick, splat, swish. Over and over again.
Those are the syncopated sounds that probably keep opposing centers up at night. Bosh has been virtually automatic with his jumper this season. He's shooting a league-leading 67 percent from 16 to 23 feet, which is almost twice as efficient as the league average (38 percent), according to Hoopdata.com. If Bosh nestles inside the 3-point line by the right elbow for a shot, better start running the other way.
Or at least that's how it's been so far this season. Check out the shot chart below courtesy of Vorped.com.
This is all part of Bosh's plan.
Opposing centers aren't ready for his jump shot, or at least it seems that way. Bosh isn't your typical bruising center whose scoring ZIP code is constrained to the restricted area near the rim. Instead, Bosh habitually pulls the opposing 5 away from his comfort zone in the paint and dares the guy to play up on him. If his opponent cuts out his airspace, Bosh puts the ball on the deck and maneuvers around his typically slow-footed 7-foot defender. If the center plays off so he can protect against the dribble-drive, Bosh lets it fly.
This dual threat is the key to why he ranks in the top 10 in player efficiency rating among regulars this season.
"I like to play chess out there," Bosh said Monday. "It’s all about the setup for the next thing. I’m always thinking 18 moves ahead."
Listen to Bosh talk about his game and you instantly get the sense that he's an intensely cerebral player. So it makes sense that he's calculating how he'll put his defender in checkmate, not just for one particular play but repeatedly. Spend some time shooting the jumper and then, once the defender catches on, drive to the rack.
"It all goes hand in hand," Bosh said. "My drive helps my shot; my shot helps my drive."
No other center can compete when it comes to his shot. Bosh has made more jumpers than any other center in the league. He has made more long 2s this season than midrange mavens Al Horford and Chris Kaman combined. In fact, Bosh has made more 16-to-23-footers than Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony put together.
But that's not usually a healthy shot for an offense. There's a reason people think the midrange game is on life support -- it's the most inefficient shot in the game. But not for Bosh.
Bosh came into the season with two goals in mind on the offensive end: Make his sweet spots even sweeter, then establish the corner 3. If he continues at this rate, he can go ahead and cross off the first objective.
He has always been proficient from the midrange, but Erik Spoelstra thinks Bosh can be a 50 percent shooter there like Dirk Nowitzki, who has shot at least 50 percent from 16 to 23 feet the past two seasons. Bosh is well above that rate. You can tell Spoelstra has been going over this with Bosh; after Monday's practice, the coach rattled off Bosh's 42 percent conversion rate from the midrange last season off the top of his head.
And as for that second item on the to-do list, the corner 3, Bosh is patiently waiting to deploy it on a regular basis. As you can see in the above shot chart, Bosh has used it sparingly thus far.
"It’s a secret weapon," Bosh said of his shot from the corner. "Once we start putting in some more sets where I can take advantage of the space, we can confuse the defense. But not yet."
Those who watched the playoffs closely know Bosh can hit that corner 3, but it takes a while for him to break it out of his arsenal. He made as many corner 3s in the postseason as he did in the regular season en route to a title. Spoelstra feels confident that Bosh can nail that shot with the same efficiency as his midrange jumper. A little-known fact is that the corner 3 stands 22 feet from the rim, which is 21 inches shorter than a 3-pointer from the top of the key.
As every opposing center the Heat have faced this season can attest, Bosh can nail the 22-footer with ease. Soon enough, you might be seeing him venture out to the corners, which would make it nearly impossible for opposing centers to protect the paint. Yet another chess move for Bosh.
For now, with 34-year-old Nowitzki sidelined, there might be a new king of the midrange. Bosh has been on another level with his jumper so far, and it has helped set him apart among the NBA's big men.
"I don’t even think I’m in the zone, really," Bosh said. "You just shoot the J, man."
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE/Getty ImagesLeBron James passed the ball in the clutch instead of taking the shot. But where's the screaming?
What has winning a title done for LeBron James?
Consider this: James passed the ball in crunch time Thursday night and there doesn't seem to be an ounce of outrage out there today.
Not a peep.
Not only did James not take a shot with the game in balance -- which would have been the macho thing to do -- but he passed it to Norris Cole, who had been shooting a frigid 2-for-11 in the game and is generally the last person on the Heat you'd expect to take the shot.
Why would the reigning MVP do such a thing?
Because Cole was wide open.
Here's what happened. With 56 seconds left, the Heat were up by only one point on the road in Denver. The Heat spread the floor and ran a high pick-and-roll with Chris Bosh. Shane Battier and Cole were in the corners, and Ray Allen was on the left wing. It was the simplest of sets that thrives on space and decision-making.
As expected, James used Bosh's screen and slowly probed his way into the paint with one objective: Wait until the defense collapses and then -- bam! -- hit the open man for a 3-pointer.
And collapse they did. Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and Andre Iguodala swarmed James as he sauntered into the lane, but the guy James exploited was Andre Miller. As Bosh rolled to the rim, Miller left Cole in the corner to rotate over and stop Bosh's transit.
That was all it took. Once Miller bit, James hit Cole with a cross-court pass, and Cole stuck the game-icing 3-pointer. There was no one within 15 feet of Cole.
To steal a line from Allen, who made the exact same game-winning shot on a feed from James against Denver a few weeks ago, "It was curtains." The Heat went up by four and won by five.
Hit the open man, that's what James had been taught at a young age. That's what all basketball players learn at a young age. But that's precisely what much of the basketball audience killed him for all these years. Yes, for following a fundamental basketball rule. Coward, many called him.
But, today, there doesn't seem to be any hand-wringing over his decision to pass.
Part of the silence comes from the fact that Cole hit the shot. If Cole's shot had rimmed out, maybe the bad result would have been interpreted as James' bad decision. That's what happened in Utah in March when he passed to Udonis Haslem and the Heat lost. (Just read the opening lines of this recap).
But now it seems we're finally ready to embrace James making the smart basketball play.
"This guy might be the most unselfish superstar we've ever had in the NBA."
Those were the words of TNT's Charles Barkley during halftime of Thursday night's game, before James passed off to a second-year player for the critical shot. In the past, Barkley's words might have been seen as a knock on James' game. Quit deferring! But now that he's won a championship, it comes off as it should, as the utmost compliment for a star.
This is what James does. He hits the open man, game on the line or not. If there's no open man, chances are he'll take it himself.
You can look at his clutch numbers this season and see for yourself. According to NBA.com/stats, James has played 20 minutes this season in standard clutch time -- when the game is within five points in the final five minutes. How has he done?
In those 20 minutes, James has tallied 18 points and six assists. Translated to a per 40-minute basis, James is averaging 36 points and 12 assists in the clutch. He has shot 62.5 percent (5-for-8) from the floor and 1-for-2 from downtown. He has shot 88.9 percent from the free throw line (8-for-9). He has turned the ball over two times and drawn a foul six times.
Gaudy numbers, but it's those assists that set James apart, as Barkley alluded to earlier in the night.
To put it another way, James' six assists in 20 minutes are as many as Chris Paul, Tony Parker and Deron Williams have combined in 44 minutes of clutch play. James has matched three elite point guards in less than half the time.
James' performance Thursday night comes on the heels of fascinating research from Heat.com's Couper Moorhead that showed that James might be the most clutch player in the NBA. Moorhead found that in the 369 minutes of clutch time that James has played with the Heat (regular season and playoffs), he leads the NBA with a player efficiency rating of 34.8. No one can top that. That's even better than his production in non-clutch situations.
This delicate balance between unstoppable and unselfish is what makes James so transcendent. He embodies the pick-your-poison dilemma for the defense. Do you send help to stop James, or do you risk him making the backbreaking clutch pass that so many stars would rather not make?
Until he won that elusive title, people screamed that passing off in crunch time was his Achilles' heel. When he deferred, it meant he was flawed.
The silence is deafening.
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How come Erik Spoelstra's defense has been so bad? Ray Allen might have a lot to do with it.
You have probably heard the Sesame Street sing-along, "One of these things is not like the others ..." That's what should ring through your head when you pull up the short list of the worst defensive teams in the NBA.
30. Cleveland Cavaliers
29. Detroit Pistons
28. Phoenix Suns
27. Portland Trail Blazers
26. Charlotte Bobcats
25. Miami Heat
(Cue vinyl record scratch sound.)
What do we make of this? A Pat Riley production directed by Erik Spoelstra ranks as one of the worst defensive teams in the world? One that features two premier defenders in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade? In what universe do the Sacramento Kings bottle up opponents better than the Miami Heat?
How is this possible?
Lots of fair questions. Let's get to the answers.
1. It is Nov. 14.
Welcome to qualifier season! Notice that every analyst seems to hedge their commentary with an "It's early, but ..." label these days? There's a reason for it: We simply don't know very much when we deal with small-sample-size theater.
So here are some facts. We are eight games into the Heat's season and they are ranked 25th in defense. Eight games into last season, do you know where the Oklahoma City Thunder's defense ranked? Twenty-fifth, the same place where the Heat currently stand. Take a guess where OKC's D finished at the end of the season. Yup, ninth. You know where the Boston Celtics' defense ranked eight games in last season? Eighteenth. They finished second.
So again, it's early. Eight games might seem like a healthy sample size, but just because it's all we have doesn't mean it's enough.
2. Don't blame the starting lineup.
Shane Battier is a commonly used scapegoat. He's the undersized 33-year-old who is now starting against power forwards like Zach Randolph, Blake Griffin and Josh Smith. Obviously that's a losing battle, right?
Wrong. The dirty little secret is that the Heat's starting lineup has been terrific defensively. According to NBA.com/stats, the starting lineup of Wade, James, Battier, Mario Chalmers and Chris Bosh has held opponents to 94.0 points per 100 possessions in 104 minutes of playing time. For reference, the Knicks lead the NBA in defensive efficiency at 93.6 points per 100 possessions. Moreover, as Couper Moorhead of HEAT.com pointed out recently, Battier has been scored on once in the 11 post-ups that he has defended.
The starting lineup has not been the problem. If we're going to diagnose the ills of the Heat's defense so far, you have to look at the bench. More specifically, you have to look at a certain Heat newcomer.
3. The Heat have fallen apart defensively with Ray Allen on the court.
When Allen has been on the floor this season, the Heat have surrendered 109.0 points per 100 possessions. When Allen's on the bench? 97.7 points per 100 possessions, or right about where they were last season.
An 11-point disparity is a signal to dig deeper. Why does the Heat's defense fall apart when Allen takes the floor? First, and probably most important, he's new. Acclimating himself with the Heat's system will take time (just ask Bosh or Battier).
Secondly, Allen will never be mistaken for Tony Allen out there as a stopper. It has spelled trouble when Allen is asked to keep up with point guards in the second unit (game film showing what Andre Miller did to Allen should be rated "R" for graphic content). All the small-sample-size caveats apply, but it's no surprise that Allen ranks 161st among 165 players in points allowed per play, according to Synergy Sports (min. 50 plays defended).
Lastly, Allen will fully admit that he's not healthy -- and may never be this season. When he's asked to stand in the corner and drain 3s, Allen is fantastic. When he's asked to move his feet laterally and stay in front of Ty Lawson, you're reminded that his ankle may not be anywhere near 100 percent yet.
But you can't pin the defensive on-court/off-court numbers entirely on Allen. That's not how defenses work. Opposing teams are shooting 41 percent from downtown and 52 percent inside the arc so far when Allen is on the floor. Those two numbers will probably regress toward the mean as the season goes on. Probably.
4. No room for Joel Anthony.
After being the Heat's full-time starter last season, Anthony has played a grand total of 20 minutes this season. The Heat's defensive specialist has basically been glued to the bench. Anthony, the team's leading shot-blocker and resident detonator of opponent pick-and-rolls, has battled hamstring issues from the preseason and hasn't been able to break into the Heat's rotation.
Spoelstra knows what he's getting from Anthony: suffocating defense that makes it seem like the opponent is playing 5-on-6, and pitiful offense that makes it seem like the Heat are playing 4-on-5. He has almost no post moves to speak of. Worse, his complete lack of dexterity on the move essentially renders him useless in the pick-and-roll with James and Wade.
With Chris Bosh starting at center and Udonis Haslem coming off the bench, there just isn't much room for Anthony in the Heat's new "pace-and-space" program. When Anthony lost his starting gig, he might have lost his place in the rotation as well.
5. Overcompensating for lack of size underneath.
It's no secret that opposing teams have put on 3-point contests against the Heat this season. In the Heat's two losses, they allowed 19 and 14 3s against the Knicks and Grizzlies respectively. And they watched the Rockets drill 12 3-pointers on Monday. If it weren't for James' Superman act down the stretch in Houston, they might have lost that one, too.
All in all, the Heat have not just allowed the third-highest 3-point percentage in the league; they've also surrendered the third-most 3-point attempts per game. If you watch the tape, you'll notice right away how teams are doing it: by whipping the ball around the court for jumpers to take advantage when the perimeter defenders like Wade and Allen collapse into the paint to help out Bosh and Battier underneath.
We can see this ball movement on film or in the numbers. According to Hoopdata.com, Heat opponents have assisted on a whopping 80 percent of their jumpers outside 16 feet, the third-highest such rate in the NBA. For comparison, only 61 percent of the Knicks' opponent jumpers are assisted on, and you can take a wild guess who has had the NBA's best defense so far. Ask any player, or just try it yourself: It's much harder to make a shot off the dribble than off a pass.
The Heat should be able to find a healthy balance between defending the perimeter and defending the paint. Spoelstra is a defensive-minded coach who has led the Heat to a top-five defensive ranking each of the previous two seasons. After that 9-8 start in 2009-10, we probably don't need to lecture Spoelstra about the virtue of patience this early in the season.
Or we could just ask Oklahoma City or Boston about it.