The Heat’s Almost-Stars are the improbable challenge in the East

Plus, can LeBron James ever do too much?

In a less dramatic rendition of their turnaround last season, when they started 11-30 and finished the season with the ninth seed, the Miami Heat are getting better as the season goes along. Winners of their first five games of 2018, they’re creating offense with a floor-spacing, playmaking lineup that can clamp down defensively, going toe-to-toe with most teams in terms of size and grit. With Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, James Johnson, Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk, the fourth-seed’s most promising lineup features no All Stars. But it’s packed to the brim with almost-stars.

The only problem? Their 24-17 record entering a matinee showdown with the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday belies an unimpressive -1.1 net rating, a metric that has historically been a reliable judge of future success. Admittedly, the Heat were still figuring things out earlier in the season which could be, in part, the cause of their poor advanced stats.

“We’re a very versatile team and we didn’t exactly know how to play together at first,” explained Richardson, prior to their victory against Toronto on Tuesday. “We had a couple kinks to work out. We started getting guys like Kelly Olynyk out on the perimeter, get them screening, handing off. Bam showing how much much he can do. That definitely changed a lot of things for us.”

Aside from the pounding against the Orlando Magic to close 2017 that spawned the win streak, the Heat’s past six games entering Sunday were decided by a margin of eight points or less, which leads, in the age of analytics, to considerations about the randomness and sustainability of their run. For all the hooting and hollering about the importance of executing down the stretch of a close game, there is a great deal of evidence of suggest that crunch-time results are largely random. Teams that are blisteringly hot in the final five minutes of a close game over a certain stretch of the season are often prone to come down, and vice versa. The Thunder, for example, induced panic in November with a slew of close early losses.

This season, Heat have the second-best clutch rating in the NBA at 26.2, which suggests regression isn’t far behind. Accepting this wouldn’t be such a conundrum, if not for the fact that there seems, almost always, to be a degree of justice behind seat-of-their-pants wins. I don’t know if I believe this because intuitively, it makes sense, or because it reinforces my foundational notions about the magic of sports.

Maybe a great deal of the volatility behind crunch-time stats has to do with the fact that there simply isn’t a large sample size of plays with teams within five points in the last five minutes of a game. Select teams have consistently performed better than average (like the Spurs) or worse (like the Timberwolves) in crunch-time over the years. Which leads me to believe that while over a season, clutch play is random, there is a method to the madness.

And a medley of individual skill, improvisation, and head coach Erik Spoelstra’s playbook is a historically reliable method. The Heat, especially now that Dion Waiters will be out for the season, don’t have a go-to closer. But they have a slew of formidable scorers who can be deadly in the right position.

Consider the fact that, in back-to-back last-second victories against the Raptors and the Jazz, the Heat executed the exact the same set and came out with a victory.

First, Ellington screened on the weak-side for Richardson to cut to the rim for a layup. Presumably, even the Phoenix Suns could suss this action out. What it did, though, was create an easier second option after Burks cut off the angle for Ellington to catch an open 3-pointer, and Ingles followed him.

“There’s really no primary target for something like that,” says Richardson. “When Wayne comes off, he’s the look. If he’s not open, then I was the look. You don’t know where the ball is going, so anybody can hurt you.”

That’s not entirely true. There are always hierarchies, whether they’re based on the best player taking the best shot, or in this case, role players taking their best shot. When pressed, Richardson admits, “I was probably the second look.”

Dragic corroborates, “It was Wayne, cutting to the corner. If he was open, I would hit him. The second option was J-Rich, backdoor to the hoop, and then the pindown back.”

Donovan Mitchell, Richardson’s man, even paused to consider Ellington, which gave Richardson even more time to cut to the top.

Just as every good isolation scorer has a counter-move when their go-to shot is denied, the Heat create multiple possibilities to put the ball in the basket. With Donovan trailing, both because of Ellington and because he focused on staying between Richardson and the rim on his initial cut, he is waylaid by Olynyk’s screen, which left Richardson with the ball in his hands, on an island against Derrick Favors, who was too slow-footed to stop his attack to the rim.

Against the Raptors, it was Ellington who threw the final punch, this time as the unlikely final option.

“We knew what play it was,” says Raptors coach Dwane Casey. “We knew exactly. We took the first option out. The first option that was Josh Richardson coming off the top, we did a good job of switching that one. DeMar did a good job of bodying him, switching it.”

After Powell and Derozan switched the initial screen, DeMar and OG Anunoby switched on Olynyk’s attempt to give Ellington a running start to the rim. Powell fought over Olynyk’s screen for Richardson to curl to the top, even though DeRozan was already there, which forced Siakam to drop back to protect against Olynyk catching the ball at the rim, opening Ellington up in the corner. Dragic inbounded him the ball, and Siakam closed out well.

And then, Ellington did something nobody expected. A shooter who was assisted on 89.7 percent of his shot attempts, put the ball on the floor, and dropped in a game-winning lay up.

The victory against the Raptors was, in some ways, a happy accident. But that’s what the best play calls do: they force the defense in so many uncomfortable directions that a mistake is invariably made, allowing the offense opportunities that generally lead to a higher rate of conversion. Crunch-time success is always going to be associated with some measure of luck. But the odds are more likely to be in your favor when you’re taking more open shots and layups. Offensive success, over the first 43 minutes of the game, is a matter of talent, execution and unpredictability. There’s no reason that shouldn’t be the case in the game’s critical moments.

A Sideline Story

According to Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com, there is a subset of the Cavs’ locker room that is frustrated with LeBron James’ ball dominance, convinced that he is assist-hunting.

My immediate reaction is that LeBron’s entire career has been defined by ball dominance, and if not outright assist-hunting, at least a dedication to finding the open man. It has led him to three championships, four MVP’s and a guaranteed place on the NBA’s most-dreaded rhetorical device: Mt. Rushmore. The reality of playing with LeBron is that he is going to sap up a lot of possessions. Playing the first half of the season without Isaiah Thomas only ratcheted up the extremities.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Toronto Raptors Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Another reality: LeBron’s dominance has traditionally been accompanied by a dependency that develops throughout seasons, which in part, is the reason why his teams perform so poorly without him. And he operates in a different world now, where most of the opponents he is going to face have multiple, well-oiled attack mechanisms. If the Cavs want to eventually defeat the Warriors, Thomas is going to have to be able to match Curry’s offensive production for at least a portion of the game. And in his fifteenth season in the NBA, LeBron is already carrying a heavy enough load, playing 36.9 minutes per game.

In the midst of a three-game losing streak, there’s a good chance LeBron is just taking it upon himself to get things done. With Thomas struggling, and Love’s inconsistency, one can hardly blame him. But in the midst of a three-game losing streak, changing course isn’t the most unreasonable idea.

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