MIAMI -- Ray Allen considers it his playground.
The same rims, backboards, 3-point and free throw lines at his disposal for the first 36 minutes of basketball games basically constitute his general work environment on most nights. But then something happens in the fourth quarter that transforms those things into something almost magical.
Actually, it’s not even about the objects on the court or the players who occupy the space Allen shares.
Instead, it’s all about the time. And Allen has spent the better part of his 18-year NBA career picking these spots and savoring the moments when the outcome of a game tends to hang in the balance.
“Well, that’s kind of like my territory,” Allen said after completing his latest fourth-quarter masterpiece. “The flow of the game doesn’t come in my direction early in a game. You’re kind of spelling minutes and backing guys up when you first come in. But in the fourth quarter, if a guy is guarding me and just thinks I’m here biding time, I’m not. I’m trying to figure out how I can have an impact.”
Once the final quarter arrived Saturday, it didn’t take Allen long to find answers.
Or, to find the bottom of the net almost every time he lifted to launched his line-drive shot.
With the Heat needing an extra boost down the stretch to put away Indiana, Allen commanded the ball, stepped outside and dominated his playground to score 13 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter of a 99-87 victory in Game 3. Miami took a 2-1 series lead over the Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals.
But that was due, in part, to Allen taking his time and knowing the moment would come when he’d cash in on a cross match that had 6-foot-9, 250-pound power forward David West chasing the league’s most prolific 3-point shooter around screens. Allen, 38, seems to be just using the remaining years of this NBA gig to get in shape to compete in triathlons when he retires.
Because the bigger and more rugged Pacers largely refuse to bend when the Heat shift to a smaller lineup, West frequently draws the short straw and takes on the assignment of defending Allen. Indiana got away with that gamble during a 107-96 win in Game 1, when Allen scored 12 points but missed four of his six attempts from 3-point range.
But whenever Allen saw the burly West coming Saturday, there was only one thought in his mind.
“Just run him. Run him,” Allen said. “Even if I don’t get the ball, just run him. If he’s going to come out there guarding me, run him off screens. Just tire him out. I’ve been doing this my whole career. So I’m very tuned up for it. He may be up for the challenge as well. But it’s going to take something away from what he’s doing on the offensive end. It’s like that football mentality. You have to block upfield to get somebody open. It’s going to have some type of effect where it’s helping our offense.”
By the time Allen hit his stride, the Heat had already overcome a sluggish start and climbed out of the 15-point hole they dug for themselves in the first half. But in the fourth quarter, Allen’s onslaught ensured Miami wouldn’t squander the opportunity to put the Pacers away.
With Allen shooting 4-of-5 from the floor, including hitting all four 3-pointers, the Heat stretched the seven-point lead they carried into the fourth quarter to as much as a 17-point cushion. Each dagger Allen delivered knocked the Pacers closer and closer to submission.
The final one from Allen put the Heat up 97-82 with 2:50 left in the game and came on an assist from LeBron James, who responded with an emphatic, arms-flailing, spittle-shooting celebratory eruption that couldn’t have produced more emotion had he made the shot himself.
“He’s got it going, and we just want to continue to find him,” James said. “I was able to find him for the majority of the shots he had in the fourth, and when you got a hot hand, you just keep going to it.”
James is a four-time league MVP who has led the Heat to championships each of the past two seasons. The Heat are his team, and will go only as far as he carries them. But the fourth quarter is Allen’s playground. That’s when his stamina kicks in and shots tend to drop. That’s why it’s no coincidence that nine of the 19 shots Allen has made from 3-point range this postseason have come in the fourth quarter.
It’s been a mesmerizing process for the Heat.
It’s been demoralizing for the Pacers.
“It’s extremely difficult to guard, especially when you’re playing bigs against him, but we haven’t been hurt quite like that [thus far in the series],” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “It was a clash in styles, which is what this series is all about. We just got to do a better job.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra knows what Vogel is going through at the moment.
Before Allen spent the past two seasons helping the Heat, he was one of the biggest headaches Spoelstra, James and Dwyane Wade had to deal with during his five seasons with the Celtics. The Heat made signing Allen in the 2012 offseason -- after Miami won a title -- a top priority for two reasons.
For one, they needed Allen.
Secondly, they needed him to stop haunting them.
“You can ask anybody in that locker room -- there are so many years of pain that [Allen] has caused a lot of us, and it’s great to have him on our side,” Spoelstra said Saturday. “It’s not just the made baskets. It’s the spacing, the movements and he gives you another layer of the offense.”
Allen knows his territory. He knows his time. And he’s still got plenty of tread on those tires.
The Pacers' dilemma with Allen falls in line with their larger challenge against the Heat. They’ve spent the better parts of three seasons chasing the two-time defending champions who have ended their season in despair year after year.
Just when you think you’ve cornered them and sized them up, they slip away.
“Confuse him, trick him. If you see me one moment there, I’m going to be somewhere else the next time you turn around,” Allen said of his strategy to get open against the Pacers. “This team, we’ve proven to be resilient. In bad situations, stretches in games when it’s not going right for us, we know how to pick it back up. Very rarely do we get knocked out early in a game. It’s the same thing with series.”
For the second straight game in this series, the Heat broke the Pacers' spirits in the fourth quarter.
In Game 2, it was James and Wade combining for 22 of Miami’s final 25 points.
On Saturday, it was Allen closing the show on his terrain.
The Heat entered this series figuring they would need their Big 3 to be on top of their respective games to get past these Pacers. With Chris Bosh struggling mightily, few imagined the third member alongside James and Wade would be Allen.
Considering his history and résumé in Boston, it’s not as if Allen is unqualified for the role.
Especially in the fourth quarter of big games.
Especially on his playground.