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Essay: Miami Is Dancing With The Three-Point Line

Placing my biased dislike for the Heat in a peripheral bubble for one brief moment, I’ll admit that assessing this team’s chances of winning a title are as difficult now as they’ve been in the past 22 months. No organization endures constant poking and prodding—millions of ineffective and useless daily autopsies—like Pat Riley’s assembled crew of “Avengers”. But as has been regurgitated since last year’s memorable Finals collapse, no matter how long they ride a hot hand or suffer through a cold winter’s losing streak, two things are for certain:

1) As long as this team deploys LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh in their prime, they’ll always lack mystique and resistance—two crucial elements for the creation of an engaging narrative. The Heat are too public and too good, to the point where it’s possible the only way they’ll lose four out of seven games is if they beat themselves (as was proven evident in Sunday’s loss to the Knicks, in which Dwyane Wade went 4-11 from the free-throw line and still came within an inch or two of hitting a game winning three), or somebody tears his ACL. Their best is better than everybody else’s best.

2) They will never be judged on regular season performance. It’s boring to the players, an ignored appetizer to the fans, and utterly meaningless when we look back 10 years from now and talk about what they had or had not accomplished.

From a big picture point of view, all conclusions created before, during, and after each Heat playoff game are insufferable and empty; nothing honest is to be gauged until they play their final game. Having said that, the way they’ve competed up to this point deserves some recognition, especially when you look at how they’re doing what they’re doing. This Heat team we’ve watched over the past week is different from the one that began its journey in December. Their focus is bitter sharp, their intensity and understanding of what’s at stake is unparalleled. This team can’t be intimidated because no opponent is scarier than the idea of facing yet another summer of overwhelming doubt and uncertainty; no five-man unit is more crippling than the fear of a lonely summer night, weeping to Al Green’s melody as South Beach dances to a different rhythm outside your window. Sure, they want to win and the ever-elusive touch of a championship trophy drives them forth, but fear can be a damn strong source of motivation.

In a series that requires four wins to advance, it only took two for the Miami Heat to psychologically destroy their opponent. With smothering defense that’s impersonating an indiscriminate group of Navy SEALS, and the world’s best player orchestrating one of the postseason’s most efficient offenses (the Heat currently rank fourth in true shooting percentage and offensive rating, according to NBA.com), the Las Vegas favorite has re-asserted itself as a team that appears to be on a mission of supremacy. What’s different now is the way they’ve gone about breaking their opponent’s will. As you’d expect, they’re capitalizing off turnovers, scoring a playoff-high 23.8 points per game. But also, out of nowhere, they’ve brought the three-point line into their main strategic attack, and the result has been devastating.

Going back to their April 10 loss to the Celtics, the Heat attempted 20 or more three-pointers in just one of their final 11 games, and throughout the season they averaged 15.6 attempts per game. (The league average was 18.3, placing Miami at 23rd) In their four playoff games, the Heat have taken 21, 21, 29, and 19 three-pointers. During their three regular season games against this same Knicks team, the Heat averaged 13.7 three-pointers a game. Right now 31.7% of all their attempted shots are from behind the three-point line (up from 24.4% in last year’s playoffs) and they’ve taken 33 shots from the corner (11 of those coming from Shane Battier). Both numbers lead all teams through the first round. The strategy is both strange and smart. Strange from the standpoint that barraging shots from 25 feet creates longer rebounds, disallowing the Heat from comfortably setting up their fierce half-court defense. Take for example this clip of LeBron launching one late in the third quarter of Sunday’s game. As it led to perhaps the most emotional and meaningful surge the Knicks have had in about 10 years, the result was like dropping a lighter in a pool of gasoline. A more direct reason this strategy might not be in their best interest is it plays away from the strengths of the team’s two best players. Wade and James are built to attack the rim and settle for nothing less than a trip to the free-throw line. The Heat averaged 0.1 less points in the paint per game than the Lakers this season, and we all know the towering offensive options those guys have.

On the other hand, Miami has built themselves up with the personality to pull a strategy like this off. From Mario Chalmers to Battier to Mike Miller to James Jones, the roster is filled with players who’ve not only made a career of knocking down wide open three-pointers, they forged an identity with it. It’d only make sense for the Heat to take advantage. But when I think about this in a rational way, maybe it’s just Erik Spoelstra‘s master plan in knowing he’ll need every guy in his rotation focused as they go deeper and deeper into the playoffs. If those players get involved now, they’ll feel the same later on even if they really aren’t apart of the offensive game plan. This is why Miami is so dangerous, so versatile and multicolored. They’re that friend who dares you to match him on shots of tequila. And as the night comes to a merciful end he’s following a strawberry blonde back to her apartment while you begin an eight hour date with the bar’s sticky floor.

Categories: Essays
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