A layup, he called it.
That’s how easy Saturday’s game-winning three-pointer felt in the hands of Ray Allen in the fraction of a second it took him to catch an outlet pass from LeBron James, rise uncontested and give the Heat a come-from-behind victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. How do you defend that? You don’t. You just hope and pray the 23-foot layup somehow rims out.
In the first 13 games of the season, James twice has found Allen wide open on the perimeter at the end of games with a win or a loss in the balance.
Both times, Allen has coolly made the three-pointer to win the game. The first came against the Nuggets at home. The second was Saturday during the Heat’s furious rally with two minutes left against the Cavaliers.
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The league is learning quickly what the Heat knew this offseason when it signed Allen away from Boston. He’s the perfect late-game complement to James’ uncanny vision as a passer and James’ unselfishness as a superstar willing to pass up late-game glory for an open shot.
And if you’re cynical, there’s this: In the past James was criticized for passing up late-game shots; now he’s simply making the obvious and easy play, deferring to the NBA’s all-time leader in three-pointers.
“He’s hit enough over the course of his career that it’s still, when he’s in our Heat uniform, when he releases, I still have almost a split nanosecond of, ‘Oh, no. It’s coming against us,’” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, somehow still subconsciously unaccustomed to having Allen on his team. “It’s a pleasure to have him on our side.”
Allen was so zoned in the fourth quarter Saturday that you could almost feel the energy from his hot hands radiating through AmericanAirlines Arena. Before his game-winning shot, he had already scored 12 points on four shots, including a pair of three-pointers, in the game’s final period.
Still, with less than 20 seconds on the clock and the Heat trailing 108-106, the Cavaliers somehow allowed Allen to find space against their defense. How?
You could call it a rookie mistake by Dion Waiters, the Cleveland guard who took his eye off Allen for a split second; but there is more to it than that. The Nuggets made a similar mistake on Nov. 3 when James collapsed Denver’s defense like a house of cards and Allen made his four-point play.
“We attack that paint so much to where eventually they have to make a decision and when LeBron and Dwyane [Wade] are driving, they attract so many guys,” Heat center Chris Bosh said.
“It is Ray Allen but it’s either a drive or a kick and it’s psychology. Sometimes you just see that ball going in and you take one step too much and you leave the best three-point shooter in the history of the game open.”
James was a good 16 feet from the basket Saturday when Wade lobbed him the ball with about 20 seconds left on the clock. Multiple defenders stood between James and the basket but still Waiters collapsed in from the perimeter to lend a hand. It allowed a small window but all the time and space James and Allen would need.
When Waiters turned away from Allen, the veteran guard slid to his left. James feigned a post move, drawing Waiters in closer, then shot a pass to Allen on the wing. As Allen likes to say, it was curtains from there.
“Just that slight movement when he went to help,” Allen said. “I just kind of slid up and when he turned, it was almost like, it was basically a layup, because I was standing right there and he didn’t have to think much.”
Allen finished with 15 points in the quarter. For the season, Allen is shooting 52.9 percent from three-point range (27 of 51).
“Ray is the definition of the ball will find energy,” Spoelstra said. “He’s in constant movement and it shifts, so whenever the defense turns their head, he runs into the passing lane and you see him right in front of you.
“It’s an incredible skill that he has. Everyone talks about his shooting but it’s his movement to get into open space — he’s a moving target.”