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Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Heat freezing up in the clutch

By Tom Haberstroh

LeBron James
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
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 final score in clutch time in Game 4?

Pacers 12, Heat 3.

This was not an isolated occurrence for the Heat. They’ve struggled in crunch time this postseason even before Game 4. For the playoffs, the star-studded Heat have gone 3-3 in the six games that have entered clutch time, according to NBA.com/stats. They’ve been outscored 68-60 in the 32 minutes of tense action against the Milwaukee Bucks, Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers. That’s not exactly a Murderers’ Row.

But here’s the craziest thing about all of this:

The Heat were absolutely merciless in crunch time during the regular season and dominated opponents with the game on the line at a nearly historic rate.

During the regular season, the Heat won 32 of the 40 games that trespassed the clutch-time threshold, winning a preposterous 80 percent of tight games. For perspective, no other team won 67 percent of its clutch games this season. The Heat were far and away the best.

It wasn’t just the wins and losses that were striking, but the sheer dominance in those games. The Heat outscored their opponents by 32.7 points per 100 possessions in crunch time this regular season, a gap so enormous that it has been matched only one other time in the past 17 seasons (James’ 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers at plus-39.9). At one point during that 27-game winning streak this season, the Heat ran up the score 134-71 in clutch situations.

But in this postseason, we’ve seen almost none of that. The Heat’s offense has been awful in crunch time, and that was the case even before Game 4. The defense? It’s been even worse. Here’s how the offensive and defensive ratings (points scored/allowed per 100 possessions) break down this regular season and postseason:

Regular season: 120.2 ORtg - 87.6 DRtg: plus-32.6 Net

Postseason: 95.2 ORtg - 115.7 DRtg: minus-20.5 Net

For perspective, the Heat’s efficiency marks are worse on both ends of the floor than the Charlotte Bobcats this past season.

Granted, this is a tiny sample size, but it’s staggering to see the Heat melt in clutch situations this postseason, especially after winning a championship and following it up by mercy-ruling their opponents in late-and-close situations in the regular season.

As was obvious in Game 4, a big reason why the Heat have struggled in critical situations is their inability to clean the boards or what Erik Spoelstra likes to call “finishing possessions.” In fact, this postseason, the Heat have recovered only 38.3 percent of the available rebounds in clutch situations, which is pathetic for a championship-caliber team. Chris Bosh and the rest of the Heat were routinely beaten on the boards at the end of Game 4, and that more or less has been the case for the entire playoffs.

Spoelstra has gone away from using his typical closing lineup of Shane Battier and Ray Allen next to the team’s star trio. It has been on the court in only two of the 32 minutes of clutch time this postseason, outscoring the opponent 8-1 in that short stint. Instead, Spoelstra has replaced Battier with Mario Chalmers, going to that five-man unit for 15 of the total 32 minutes, according to NBA.com/stats.

The score in those 15 minutes?

Opponents 39, Heat 18.

Perhaps it might be time to revisit that Battier-Allen lineup.

Entering the series, the Pacers’ woeful inexperience was pitted against the Heat’s championship pedigree. At the time, Ian Mahinmi was the only one on the Indiana roster to have ever played past the second round of the playoffs. His conference finals experience? A whopping 1 minute, 11 seconds.

But if we attribute clutch performance to veteran stability and savvy, which team looks like the inexperienced one?