The Miami Heat have two of the best closers in the game today in Dwyane Wade and LeBron James yet they struggle to maintain late leads and close out games. This is counterintuitive considering how great both LeBron and Dwyane have been throughout their careers in the “clutch.” Their struggles have played out in front of millions and they need to correct this if they ever want to win the NBA Championship.
The 4th quarter collapse to the Orlando Magic Thursday night summed up Miami’s struggles this season. The Heat was up as much as 24 points in the 3rd quarter but they allowed a 22-7 run to the Magic. From that point, you could see the train wreck developing in slow-motion. Miami carried a 9-point lead into the 4th but you could see the twist at the end developing. This game was building up to be a culmination of Miami’s season long struggles. You knew that at one point, LeBron was going to get a chance to take a game winning or saving shot and that he was going to come up short.
And it played out exactly like that.
Orlando went on an 18-0 run in the 4th to take their first lead and they never looked back. Miami ran a broken play that inexplicably went to Chris Bosh for a game-tying three. No surprise that Bosh missed but a Mike Miller offensive rebound turned into a kick out to LeBron for a last second heave … brick. Many took to twitter to instantly proclaim how “un-clutch” LeBron is and how he doesn’t know how to win playoff-like games, and they have a valid point. Something is wrong in Miami and they need to figure it out.
The Miami Heat are 43-18 and are in sole possession of the #2 seed in the East. They have the 4th best record in the NBA and are just two games out of the top seed in the East and second-best record in the NBA. If the pre-season expectations weren’t set at an all-time high, one could actually say that the Heat are doing just fine. They are on pace to win 58-games, which is one better than what the defending champion, Los Angeles Lakers, are on pace for. So why all the panic? Because something is fundamentally wrong with this team.
Miami has 18 losses on the season. 12 of those losses have come by five points or less. Those losses are magnified by the fact that Miami has numerous 4th-quarter leads. Miami is the worst among the NBA’s elite teams in blowing leads when leading after three quarters; (Miami has lost 5 games, Boston 4 games, Magic, Lakers, Bulls have all blown 3 games, Spurs – ZERO games)*. That’s not the mark of a team who has two of the best closers in the game.
But are Wade and LeBron still the best closers in the game? Intuition tends to say yes but the numbers don’t agree. According to 82games.com, last season LeBron James was the best “clutch” performer in the NBA where “clutch” is defined as “4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points.” In per-48 minute based numbers, LeBron averaged 66.1 points, 15.9 rebounds, 8.3 assists on 48.8% shooting. All of those stats were in the top-10 for clutch performers. Dwyane, by the same metric, was the 22nd best clutch player in the NBA last season, averaging 32.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 10.0 assists on 38.8% shooting. Even Chris Bosh was in the mix, coming in 24th with averages of 30.9 points, 14.3 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 38.15 shooting.
This season, Miami’s Bermuda Triangle has been anything but clutch. LeBron has dropped all the way to 13th in clutch production, averaging 40.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists on 33.3% (!!!) shooting. Chris Bosh has also plummeted to 28.8 points and 9.5 rebounds in the clutch but he has improved his FG% to 71.4%. Dwyane Wade is the most interesting case. No one’s late-game production has been hurt more than Dwyane’s — he’s been a ghost in the final minutes of every game. Sometimes I wonder if he is even on the Heat during these important stretches. The eyeball test is only further confirmed when we look at his “clutch” stats. Again looking at 82games.com Dwyane Wade ranks as … well, Dwyane doesn’t even show up on their list of clutch performers.
Despite their overall numbers looking stellar, Miami, as a whole, has really struggled in the 4th quarter. Their offensive efficiency ranks as the 5th best in the NBA, as they are racking up 110.8 points per 100 possessions. Likewise, their defensive efficiency is also the 5th best in the NBA, only allowing 102.8 points per 100 possessions. That’s a league best +/- margin of +8.0 per 100 possessions. Miami is the only team to rank in the top five in both OffEff and DefEff.
Miami also leads the NBA in overall scoring margin, boasting a stellar margin of +7.4 points per game. But these numbers fail to uncover their 4th quarter shortcomings. Miami’s offense goes stagnant in the 4th and crashes to mediocre averages. Miami produces well above the league average in the first three quarters, putting up 25.8, 26.3 and 24.9 points in the first through third, respectively. But they only manage to score 24.2 in the 4th, which is 16th best in the NBA. Even their scoring margin takes a nosedive, dropping to +0.9 points in the 4th quarter. Although that’s 6th best in the NBA, it’s well below their performances in the other three periods of play.
Is this a case of too much of a good thing? Does Miami have so many closers that they don’t know who to go to? Bryan Crawford of Slam alluded to that on twitter last night. I think he has a point. The biggest issue for Miami has been its identity. There is just one ball to play and two superstars who want to play with it. We imagine that only great things can come when one great player is passing to another great player but the reality isn’t as picture perfect. For Miami, it’s been a nightmare. Spoelstra has not been helping the situation. As Sebastian Pruiti of NBAPlaybook.com has pointed out numerous times, the Heat look lost on their crucial final second plays because they keep opting to give the wrong player the wrong shot.
Last nights game was a prime example of running the wrong play for the wrong guy. Down 3-points with under 10 seconds to play, they opted to have Mike Miller inbound the ball to Dwyane Wade. Now, Mike Miller is statistically one of the best three point shooters on the Heat while Dwyane Wade is one of their worst. Hedo Turkoglu played excellent defense and Miller was forced to pass to his second option. Here is where everything that could be wrong about this play really comes to light. The second option in this play was Chris Bosh. Why? No one knows. When you are down three you don’t go to your 7’0″ big man who shoots just 27.3% from deep. You just don’t. LeBron was forced to heave up a last second shot with just a second left in the game which ultimately missed. LeBron went 11 for 16 in the game but had attempted only two shots in the 4th, Bosh finished the game 5 of 15, attempting seven shots in the 4th, scoring on only two of them. Dwyane Wade went 0-4 in the 4th.
Miami needs to establish its identity. They really only have three options, play team ball, pick one closer, or alternate closers. They can play team ball, like the Celtics and Spurs, and go with their best option at the end of games. If they are down three, why not run a play for James Jones, the current reigning three-point champion. If they need two, go with the hot hand or the mismatch. Or they can settle for Kobe Bryant basketball where they run isolation sets down the stretch for their best player. If they opt for this scheme they need to figure out who their closer is from here on out. Many have been crying for Wade to get the ball more in this position but the numbers don’t support his case. I’m not even sure if Dwyane’s been awful in the clutch, I just know he has been a non-factor.
And all of this is on Erik Spoelstra. The head coach needs to step in here and make some big decisions. His play calling will ultimately establish the identity of this team. At this point, it doesn’t matter who gets the ball, they just need to finish before this Big-3 turn into a big bust.
*Blown leads research was done by Danny Martinez. Thanks for your hard work, sir!
(Photo by Victor Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
Shane is a new guest contributor to Larry Brown Sports. You can find him babbling about basketball all over the net or tune in as he tweets nonsense on twitter; @Suga_Shane.