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Saturday, March 22, 2014
Youthful Allen provides much-needed boost

By Israel Gutierrez

MIAMI -- Of course a rugged, painful, Memphis-special type of game would be sealed in an uncontested, two-handed dunk from Ray Allen.

It makes as much sense as a team seemingly stuck in quicksand in its quest for a third straight championship relying on a rejuvenated 38-year-old for a burst of life.

But that’s exactly how this Miami Heat-Memphis Grizzlies 91-86 slugfest effectively ended, with Allen shaking free and catching a long inbound pass from Dwyane Wade that left Allen free for the rare, flashy finish and a four-point Heat lead in the final seconds.

And that’s exactly what Allen has done for this Heat team in a surprising March malaise: given Miami the offense punch it so sorely lacks.

Friday’s Heat performance wasn’t just about the team’s unique struggles. The Grizzlies and their consistent defense also had plenty to do with Miami kind of piecing together a less-than-stellar effort for three quarters. As did LeBron James’ sore back that kept him out of the Heat’s last game, a loss in Boston on Wednesday.

But for the third time in five games, it was Allen who finished with the top scoring total for Miami, with 18 points in 31 minutes off the bench.

Before these three Allen-led games, no Heat player outside the Big Three had led Miami in scoring since last year.

Needless to say, Miami would be in an even more troubling place -- six losses in 10 games is already close to panic time for the Heat -- if it weren't for Allen’s past five games.

In them, he’s averaging 18.6 points and shooting 53.4 percent from the field, including 45.2 from distance.

“I don’t know where we’d be lately without Ray, his production,” James said. “He’s getting in that rhythm. You can tell his legs are getting ready for the spring. Everything he’s given us has been a boost.”

Before this recent stretch from Allen, the sharpshooter had been shooting just 36 percent from 3-point range, which had been his worst since his third year in the league.

His first season in Miami, Allen shot 41.9 percent from deep, which made his struggles this year somewhat perplexing.

The strongest theory was the simplest: Allen’s age was finally catching up with him. And with no Mike Miller to relieve him of 3-point specialist duties -- coincidentally, Miller was honored Friday with a tribute video, his second championship ring and a center-court mobbing from his former Heat teammates in his first game back since being amnestied this offseason -- there was natural concern that Allen couldn't contribute as regularly as he did last year.

Beginning with Miami’s 111-107 home loss to Denver on March 14, Allen has looked like a more aggressive, more vibrant version of himself.

He scored 22 points in that game, simply by being more aggressive within the offense and not being shy in catch-and-shoot opportunities.

His next four games, Allen put up double-figure field goal attempts in each. Prior to that, Allen hadn't put up 10 or more shots since Jan. 18.

“We’re involving him a lot more, getting him some looks at the basket and putting him in position to make plays,” Chris Bosh said. “It’s working out for him well. He’s playing very well right now. We just have to catch up with him, and hopefully before the season’s over we can all be on the same page.”

Bosh, James and Wade were all uncommonly off at once Friday, James in part because of his back, while all three were affected by the Grizzlies' physical play.

So in a second quarter in which the Heat trailed by as much as nine points, it was Allen’s eight second-quarter points, including a nifty fast-break finish on a pass from LeBron, that helped the Heat recover for a 45-43 halftime lead.

And with the Heat trailing by seven with less than four minutes remaining, it was Allen again rescuing Miami from further damage.

It wasn't much of a possession, either. With 15 seconds left on the shot clock, LeBron just found Allen coming off a screen. He wasn't particularly wide open. He just pulled up for a comfortable 3-pointer -- at least comfortable by his standards.

It went. And combined with a mob-Zach Randolph mentality on defense (Marc Gasol left the game for good in the third quarter with a sprained ankle), that shot kick-started an 11-0 run for the Heat.

But the game wasn't truly in Miami’s hands until that final long pass and two-handed flush from Allen.

In a game in which Randolph bullied his way to 25 points and 14 rebounds for Memphis, it was the smooth stroke and “young” legs of a 38-year-old that kept Miami’s recent struggles from multiplying.

And Bosh, for one, appreciates that result regardless of how it came.

“Winning’s still special, to me,” he said. “It needs to be to everybody here. We’re not going to play perfect games, we have to accept that. If we’re in a dog fight, we’re in a dog fight.”