There are a lot of different ways to measure how much the Miami Heat has missed Dion Waiters since he went down with a badly sprained left ankle late in the first half of a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on March 17.
You can start with the obvious: Miami is 3-5 since its starting shooting guard was hurt and is far better with him on the court (27-19) overall this season than when he’s out (10-21).
You can also note how analytically the Heat has a 2.8 better net rating when Waiters plays and how his impact isn’t just on offense (106.5 rating) but defense too (103.8 rating).
But where Waiters’ impact – and absence – has been felt the most of late is late in close games.
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Three of the Heat’s last four losses have come by four points or less, and in Miami’s last four games in which the lead or deficit was no more than five points with under five minutes to play (classified by the league as clutch situations) the Heat’s offense has been dreadful, combining to shoot a league-worst 21.1 percent (8 for 38).
It hasn’t just been guys missing open shots. It’s been bad shot selection, too.
“Dion can set guys up a lot,” Hassan Whiteside said. “But you know, he’s not here. He’s hurt.”
If not for Whiteside’s last-second tip-in in Detroit, the Heat would be 0-4 in clutch situations since Waiters’ latest injury. That’s a drastic drop-off since Waiters, who ranks third on the team in scoring (15.8) and second in assists (4.3), first returned from a groin injury after a 20-game absence in early January.
Though the Heat rank 25th in the league in clutch shooting for the season (38.7 percent), Miami was 14th in the league in the clutch (44.8 percent) and 10-4 overall from Jan. 14 until Waiters landed awkwardly and hurt his ankle on St. Patrick’s Day.
Those numbers are much more comparable to last season’s Heat team with Dwyane Wade, which shot 45.2 percent in the clutch (fourth-best in the league) and was 25-18 overall in clutch situations.
Waiters was obviously a big part of the Heat’s success during its mid-January to mid-March stretch. Not only did he famously deliver the game-winning three-pointers in victories over Golden State and Brooklyn, but he was 10-of-21 overall shooting in the clutch (7-of-13 from three) and had four assists compared to two turnovers over the stretch.
Though Josh Richardson, James Johnson and Tyler Johnson each hit big three-pointers down the stretch of Sunday’s loss to the Denver Nuggets to keep the Heat within striking distance, Whiteside was critical of the shot selection overall, saying there was “too much hero ball” and not enough flow to the offense.
The Heat was 2-of-8 shooting in the clutch in Sunday’s loss to the Nuggets and 1-of-9 shooting in the clutch in Friday’s loss to the Knicks.
“I just think down the stretch we should have worked their defense,” Whiteside said after Sunday’s loss to the Nuggets. “They’re [29th] in the NBA in defense. We should have worked it a little more. When we try to play hero ball or guys try to come down and go 1-on-3 and get it stolen or blocked, it’s hard to get back in transition.
“When they bring two guys down there to defend me on the pick and roll we just have to make that extra pass to the corner. We just have to keep seeing that. I just felt like that when coach made the sub of putting in the other unit we just didn’t run our offense well the last five minutes.”
That unit Whiteside was referring to included Tyler Johnson and James Johnson, who entered Sunday’s game off the bench with 4:08 remaining and the Heat trailing 105-102. Neither Whiteside nor point guard Goran Dragic took a shot after the Heat’s prolific bench scoring duo entered the game. Tyler Johnson had two of his shots blocked in the paint down the stretch before hitting a three-pointer with 10.8 seconds to play, trimming Miami’s deficit to 114-113.
“We can’t run pick and roll and try to force a shot up against their center,” Whiteside said. “We can't force up a shot 1-on-3 instead of just kicking it to the corner, dribble hand off or keep running the offense like we were doing the first three quarters.”
After Wade left for Chicago this summer the biggest question facing the Heat entering the season was who would replace him as the go-to-player in clutch situations. Though no one on the team is shooting the 45.5 percent Wade shot in the clutch last season (he shot 51.7 percent in the clutch during the playoffs), the stats a healthy Waiters posted from mid January until his latest injury are close enough.
Though a few others on the team – Dragic (22-of-57, 38.6%), Tyler Johnson (18-of-45, 40%), Hassan Whiteside (15-of-29, 51.7%) – have put up better numbers in the clutch than Waiters (12-of-34, 35.2 percent) for the season, its clear the Heat could badly use its late game hero over its final five regular season games.
The results so far without Waiters haven’t been very good at all.