For a franchise whose personality has always been about tough, gritty, old-school team defense, the Miami Heat is resembling something a little more modern-day NBA lately.
They’ve become a legitmate lethal three-point shooting team – and it’s not some hot streak anymore.
The Heat, which has now matched the franchise record for most double-digit three-point games in a season (31), has gone from ranking 28th in the league in three-point shooting percentage (33.7), 23rd in three-pointers made (8.6) and 19th in three-point attempts (25.6 per game) over its dreadful 11-30 start to leading the league in three-point percentage (41.0), ranking fifth in three-pointers made (11.8) and ninth in three-point attempts (28.8) over its current 20-4 run.
Not only is the Heat (31-34) well on its way toward making more threes (637 thus far) than it ever has in a season (717 in 2012-13), it’s really become the secret formula to the team’s turnaround.
Miami is 13-3 this season when it makes at least 13 pointers in a game this season. If you look at the team’s drastic offensive improvement – Heat has gone from averaging 98.3 points per game over its first 41 games to 109.3 points over its last 24 games – nine of those points come directly from the team averaging three more three-pointers made per game.
In Wednesday night’s victory over the Charlotte Hornets, the Heat matched a franchise-record with 41 three-point attempts, and for the first time in team history concluded a three-game stretch in which it made at least 15 three-pointers in each game.
So what gives?
“Well, we’re a little bit healthier now,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We understand what our game is and what our strengths are and that’s still to be an aggressive attacking team. If you don’t have attackers that command the respect of a team to bring a second defender, the three-point shooting is not going to be open.
“We have great three-point shooters that really work at it diligently. They spend a lot of time in the gym on their craft. It may just be three, four or five shots that they get, but they have to shoot hundreds of shots to prepare themselves for that and do it on a run and build their bodies up with conditioning. You see that in Wayne [Ellington] and Luke [Babbitt] and Goran [Dragic], who has really improved his three-point shooting. [James Johnson] has really worked at it. If we’re consistent to our game, that can be a byproduct of it. But we’re not just coming down and jacking threes off the dribble. We’re getting to something specific.”
Through the Heat’s first 41 games, three players were shooting better than 37 percent from beyond the arc (Dragic, James Johnson, Tyler Johnson). Over Miami's 20-4 run, the Heat has five players shooting better than 40 percent from three and averaging at least one made three-pointer a game.
Ellington, who shot 32.1 percent and averaged two threes over the first half of the season, is making a team-leading 2.8 threes per game and shooting at a 41.9 percent clip during the Heat's 20-4 stretch.
Babbitt, who shot 35.9 percent from three over the first half of the season, is shooting at a 50.6 percent clip.
Dion Waiters, who shot 30.8 percent from three over the first half of the season, is making 2.5 threes per game and shooting at a 44.9 percent clip.
And rookie Rodney McGruder, who shot 31.0 percent from three over the first half of the season, is making 1.3 threes per game and shooting at a 41.1 percent clip.
While James Johnson (26.1 percent) and Tyler Johnson (33.9 percent) are all shooting worse from three-point range over the team's last 24 games than they did the first half of the season, Dragic has been the one constant all season. He’s is shooting 42.1 percent for the season and was at 39 percent during the Heat's 11-30 start.
“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.”
Said Dragic: “We have a saying, ‘good to great.’ Sometimes you have a good shot, but if you swing it maybe that’s even a greater shot.”
Considering the Heat’s drastic improvement from three-point range, most opponents, players said, haven’t really adjusted. Wednesday night, the Hornets, a team which ranks sixth in fewest paint points allowed, packed the paint and dared the Heat to shoot from three.
“It’s a little surprising,” Ellington said of how teams haven’t adjusted to the Heat’s new way of attack. “But teams you’ll find out are kind of stubborn with the way they play defense.”
The key to it all comes back to Dragic and Waiters and how they force opponents to defend them when they attack the paint. Then add the fact center Hassan Whiteside is there and it provides another defensive dilemma.
As long as the shots go in, Whiteside said, he’s good with playing the role of spectator when teams clamp down on him.
“It's all good,” Whiteside said. “It's philly cheese steak good."