Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire
The big question: Who should have the ball in late-game situations?
MIAMI -- As Miami's regular season comes to a close, a lingering question continues to dominate the conversation:
Who is the Heat's closer?
With two ball-dominant superstars on the wings and an efficient big man on the block, the Heat are blessed with late-game options and triggers. And with nine games left in the 82-game grind, we don’t have a clear indication whether the ball should be in the hands of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh at the end of games.
In most circumstances, the reigning two-time MVP would stand as the obvious and default choice for closing duties, but the Heat aren’t your normal circumstance. Wade has developed a seemingly bulletproof reputation as a crunch-time assassin over his career, and longtime Heat fans will point out that he bears a championship ring while James does not. Furthermore, James’ recent big-stage failures will continue to stain his reputation.
When it comes to the closer situation, James is fully aware that he’s not in Cleveland anymore and it took time to get used to his South Florida scenery.
“We definitely have more firepower here than in Cleveland,” James said Sunday. “If it was a close game in Cleveland, I was going to have the ball in my hands and I had to make all the decisions. Now, there are times when I don’t have the ball in my hands, so I have to find a way to be productive off the ball, which was a challenge early on.”
Being productive in general down the stretch has been an issue for James. But he’s not alone. In fact, if we’re grading on merit, neither James nor Wade has earned the rights to the title of Heat closer. If you look at the Heat’s track record this season, the team has been woefully unsuccessful in the clutch, and the blood is on both James and Wade’s hands.
How do we define clutch? We can start by using the generally accepted parameters of five minutes remaining and the game within five points, the benchmark set by advanced stats warehouse 82games.com. Here are the gory details:
Big Three in the Clutch*
Source: NBA StatsCube *Clutch defined as fewer than 5 minutes remaining, game within 5 points
A few things jump out. First, Wade’s numbers this season fall short of reputation. He has been far less efficient down the stretch this season than James and Bosh. Wade’s field goal percentage sits just below 40 percent in these situations, and while James and Bosh have improved their free throw percentage in the clutch, Wade’s has gone south. Put together, the true shooting percentages (TS%, a measure of scoring efficiency accounting for field goals, 3-point field goals and free throws, put on the scale of field goal percentage) tell a similar story, with James and Bosh leading the way.
Another interesting finding? Skewed ball distribution. Take a look at each player’s usage rate (USG%), which tells us the percentage of team possessions the player uses on the floor. If the ball is distributed equally among the five players on the court, each player would enjoy a 20.0 percent usage rate. But, of course, the Heat don’t employ an equitable strategy with the ball. James and Wade dominate the rock down the stretch, and despite shooting the ball incredibly well, Bosh gets only half the touches that James and Wade receive.
But five minutes feels a little too broad for my taste. Let’s zoom in and look at less than one minute on the clock and the game within three points, or what we commonly refer to as a one-possession game.
Big Three in the Super Clutch*
Source: NBA StatsCube *Super Clutch defined as less than 1 minute remaining, game within 3 points
A reminder before we continue: This is a tiny sample size, and therefore we can’t draw any definitive conclusions. But from the data here, we see a similar story. James and Wade aren’t lighting it up, but Wade continues to lag behind James in the efficiency department. And Bosh? He hasn’t come through in the few opportunities that he’s had -- all four of his attempts being off the mark.
Again, we see that both Wade and James have dominated the ball in these situations, with James boasting a whopping 46.2 percent usage rate, or nearly half of the Heat’s possessions. James isn’t eating into Wade or Bosh’s touches necessarily. Instead, what we see here is that the Big Three squeeze out what little responsibility the supporting cast had in these super clutch situations. The Big Three’s combined usage rate in the five-minute clutch? 80 percent. In this version? 95 percent, or just 5 percent leftover for the little ones.
However, the main takeaway here has nothing to do with anointing LeBron or Wade with clutch supremacy. Instead, let’s take a long moment to appreciate how dreadful the Heat have performed with the game on the line. The Big Three have combined for 10-for-33 shooting in this super clutch situation. Granted, the league average is just 36.4 percent in these circumstances, but these are some of the best scorers in the game today. The best.
Rather than raising their respective games in crunch time, the Big Three have crumbled under the pressure thus far. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of time to turn this around – again, the obligatory surgeon’s general warning of tiny sample size -- but the results so far have been less than promising, to say the least. No one deserves the closer label with this kind of production. The Heat’s supporting cast isn’t making a case either -- they’ve shot just 2-for-9 in these super clutch situations.
Now, even one minute and three points may seem too loose of a criteria for some. Can we zoom in closer? Sure we can. Let’s take a look at what I’ll call do-or-die situations: tied or down three points (or fewer) with 24 seconds or less on the game clock. What do we find?
Big Three in do-or-die situations*
Source: NBA StatsCube *Do-or-die defined as less than 24 seconds remaining, Heat tied or down three points or fewer.
Yeesh. Putting aside my amusement that Bosh’s only two shot attempts have come from beyond the arc, there’s nothing but failure here. Wade made that 3-pointer against the Utah Jazz back in November, but other than that, he’s missed some late tip-ins in addition to the potential game-tying 3-pointer against the Bulls in January, as well as the wide-open jumper at the end of regulation against the Bucks in January. The missed putbacks overstate Wade’s late-game struggles, and James famously missed the running jumper against the Bulls, bolstering a larger trend across the season.
Overall, the Heat are desperate for some production in these situations, missing 19 of their 23 shot attempts in these scenarios. But as much as we’d like to write the Heat off, we’re dabbling in some small sample size theatre here. When Albert Pujols goes 1-for-6 or 2-for-9 over a two-game stretch, we don’t call him a failure; we move on and recognize the power of randomness. The rationalist in us should show a similar perspective here with the Heat. In the grand scheme of things, 23 shot attempts is statistically nothing more than a small blip. But that’s all we have at this point.
There are no excuses. James, Wade and Bosh will be the first to admit that it’s time for them to step up late in the game. This isn’t all on them. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra deserves a share of the blame, but it ultimately comes down to the players to execute and deliver on the big stage.
There’s reason to believe that the Heat have turned the corner, however. The Heat have revealed a new wrinkle in their late-game offense: the wildly successful, yet previously absent Wade-LeBron pick-and-roll. At Spoelstra’s command, the Heat ran it several times down the stretch against the Rockets on Sunday with success, as the play drew mismatches and delivered buckets.
We saw a derivative of the Wade-LeBron pick-and-roll on Sunday night that may prove unguardable, when the Heat were up 118-115 with just under a minute left versus the Rockets. James dribbled the ball up top as Wade set a pin-down for Bosh on the right elbow, freeing up Bosh to set a screen for James at the top of the key. James used Bosh’s screen, dribbled to the right side of the court, and then handed it off to a whirling Wade on the right wing before James walled off Wade’s defender, Chase Budinger. Following the handoff, Wade drove through the paint to the opposite side of the rim and laid it up off the backboard for two critical points. The Heat won 125-119.
Each member of the Big Three was working together for the greater good of the team, setting screens for each other in a matter of moments. We haven't seen this much coordination between the Big Three all season.
“I like to hold it in our pocket until we have to use it," Spoelstra said of the play in his postgame presser.
The play is as simple as it is powerful. It could erase a season’s worth of failure in the clutch, but more importantly, it underlines a growing discovery.
The Heat's most effective closer is not Wade, James or Bosh.
It is closer-by-committee.