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The Heat’s Playoff Push Inches Closer, One 3-Pointer at a Time

Miami couldn’t replace Dwyane Wade, so it went in the opposite direction, depending on perimeter shooting from unheralded names. It’s a 180 that somehow could keep the team headed in the right direction.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The “3-and-D” descriptor is reserved for low-maintenance wings who space the floor from deep and possess the bonus skill of shifting positions defensively. For the Miami Heat, 3-and-D is really 3-and-Dion, a hodgepodge squad of seventh men who have collectively (and improbably) found the range this season, led by the ultimate “shoot, then shoot again” deity, Dion Waiters.

Forty-one games into this season, ESPN Stats & Info gave Miami a 0.03 percent chance of making the playoffs. Long removed from LeBron James, more recently removed from Dwyane Wade, and emotionally removed from Chris Bosh, the Heat’s transitional identity crisis showed in the loss column. At 11–30, the reasonable thought process would have been to shift to next season: Think about the future, trade, and tank.

But there isn’t a word for “reasonable” in the native language spoken on Waiters Island, and just 12 days after his return from a longstanding groin injury, that future changed. Losses 29 and 30 brought Waiters back to the starting lineup. Miami beat the Rockets, then won again, and again — a 13-game win streak that on Wednesday, in a win against the Hornets, became 20 victories in the past 24 games — all without Justise Winslow, who led the team in minutes before getting injured. Now, Miami sits just a half game behind current 8-seed Chicago and a game and a half behind 7-seed Detroit in the East, both of which lost Wednesday. In spite of everything, the Heat have mounted a serious playoff push. For the Bulls, who have a rough schedule coming up, it’s trouble. For the Heat, it’s miraculous.

Miami’s makeshift cast is guard-heavy, with Goran Dragic, Waiters, Wayne Ellington, Tyler Johnson, and Josh Richardson. Like the league’s most successful backcourt teams — Houston and Golden State — an uptick in 3-pointers has proved to be a winning recipe, but only if the guards are capable shooters. This season, especially since the beginning of their 24-game run, the Heat are the most accurate 3-point-shooting team in the league, draining 41 percent of their attempts. They’re on pace to take and make more than ever before in Erik Spoelstra’s nine seasons as head coach — or franchise history, period.

With Wade gone, so was the need to build an offense around a shooting guard not interested in shooting behind the arc. Spo’s roster shift changed his plan on offense, and now he is coaching a Heat team not only incorporating the perimeter more, but also breaking 3-point records. Against Charlotte, Miami launched a franchise-high 41 attempts, a figure that barely cracks the top 50 in most 3-point attempts this season, but it’s a clear example of Miami’s new blueprint. (For what it’s worth, Wade attempted 44 3-pointers last season, total.) The team has attempted at least 30 3-pointers in 21 games this season — last year, that didn’t even happen once. The Heat have been the best 3-point-shooting team in the league since their 20–4 run began January 17. Turns out Miami doesn’t need a player like Wade when it has players like Ellington and Luke Babbitt.

Ellington, especially. On his sixth team in five seasons, he leads the Heat in 3-point attempts. With 17 games yet to be played, the 29-year-old has already taken 23 more attempts from behind the arc than ever before in a season, and a career-high 109 have fallen, despite him missing 20 games. Spoelstra has before likened Ellington’s ability to pop open for shots to Ray Allen’s, and this season he has one of the league’s top 15 effective field goal percentages in catch-and-shoot situations (of those with a minimum five attempts). This isn’t just happening by chance. It’s all part of Spo’s plan.

“If we’re consistent to our game, that can be a byproduct of it,” Spoelstra nonchalantly told the Sun Sentinel about the team’s increased range. “But we’re not just coming down, jacking threes off the dribble. We’re getting to something specific.”

The roster behind these numbers is basketball’s own Suicide Squad, but much better directed. (Have I mentioned that Spoelstra is now in the conversation for Coach of the Year? Spoelstra is now in the conversation for Coach of the Year.) Tyler Johnson, your Glue Guy’s Glue Guy, brings necessary push off the bench, one night leading the team with 24 points against the Sixers, and dropping 17 in 26 minutes facing the Cavaliers a few days later. Babbitt — who is shooting 60.5 percent from deep over the past nine games and made three of his four attempts in beating the Cavs — is being “begged” by Spo to take “questionably bad shot[s]” from behind the arc.

Like the Rockets, there isn’t much lingering on whether the shots go in. “Everyone on this team has the confidence in anyone who takes that three-point shot,” James Johnson said. “We move on regardless of what happens. When you have guys who are rooting for you to make shots and take shots, it makes it easier.”

It’s also easier with spacing, something Dragic’s elite ability to penetrate helps with. The Sun Sentinel recently reported on the team’s perimeter placement in preparation for Dragic driving inside. When he, Waiters, or Hassan Whiteside is overmanned inside, outlets are set. In scrimmages during practice, players’ respective spots are marked with tape.

“There’s three spots that have to be filled on every play,” Tyler Johnson explained. “That’s why sometimes you’ll see someone throw it just instinctively to the corner, thinking somebody is going to be there and nobody is there. Somebody is supposed to be there.”

It sounds formulaic, and it is, but the drive-and-kick has been their blueprint for success. Miami is the only team with two players ranked in the top six of drives per game, with Dragic and Waiters dribbling into the paint from at least 20 feet out more often than James Harden, DeMar Derozan, and Kyle Lowry do. Of the players at the top of the list, none kicks the ball out on drives more frequently than Dragic (46.7 percent of his drives result in a pass) and Waiters (40.2 percent) — a higher clip than what elite assist men like John Wall, Kemba Walker, Damian Lillard, and even LeBron James have logged this season. Yet, for as often as the Heat guards are penetrating, they don’t generate a lot of points compared with their peers on the drives leaderboard, but that’s because for Miami, scoring on a drive isn’t the main objective — finding the open man outside is.

The Heat’s 3-point fever has even made its way onto Waiters Island. Its namesake might argue otherwise, but over the course of the season, he’s gone from a passable 3-point shooter to a good one. Prior to his groin injury, he shot 34.4 percent from deep on 3.8 attempts per game through the first 16 games of the season. Since reentering the starting lineup January 10, that’s climbed over 8 percentage points, to 42.3 percent on nearly six attempts per game. But what’s most remarkable about his game is the bailout. Waiters keeps tossing up shots at the end of close games that found the Heat overmatched, then winning anyway and posing like your uncle does after making a jumper in pickup. After the win at Charlotte on Wednesday, Spoelstra told the Miami Herald, “We were dead in the water. Their defense really got us flattened out, and he saved us.”

For those watching in Chicago and Detroit, the question is whether Miami’s improvement is sustainable. But for the trigger-happy castoffs shooting themselves into playoff contention, the only question is who’s launching the next 3.