Among many questions that needed to be answered amid changes in Heat personnel in the past year:
• With Dwyane Wade gone, who would become the Heat’s go-to players in crunch time and how would they do?
• With Luol Deng off to the Lakers (where he has fallen out of the rotation) and Justise Winslow limited to 18 games, who would become the Heat’s best perimeter defender?
Exploring both issues:
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The Heat last season was 25-18 in games that had a margin of five points or fewer at some point in the final five minutes and outscored teams by 60 points in those 178 minutes.
This season, the Heat is 17-19 in those close games and has been outscored by 20 points in 126 clutch minutes. One problem is poor clutch free throw shooting: 53 for 78, that 67.9 percent ranking fourth-worst.
But since the Heat began a streak of 21 wins in 26 games, Miami is 9-4 and a plus 23 in 36 clutch minutes, while shooting 45.5 percent on clutch threes. The Heat missed seven consecutive clutch shots late in Sunday’s loss at Indiana, which is uncharacteristic.
This season, without Wade, clutch shots have been distributed more evenly. Last season, Wade attempted 102 clutch shots (NBA’s fifth most) and made 45 percent of them.
This season, six Heat players have attempted between 20 and 48 clutch shots: Goran Dragic (taken 48, made 43.8 percent of them); Tyler Johnson (taken 36, made 44.4 percent), Dion Waiters (taken 34, made 35.3 percent), Hassan Whiteside (taken 26, made 53.8 percent, but 6 for 12 on clutch free throws), Justise Winslow (taken 21, made 33.3 percent before his season-ending shoulder injury) and James Johnson (taken 20, made 25 percent).
“It's not going to be every game one guy taking them,” Dragic said. “This is the quality our team has. When you are defending a team like us, you don’t know who is going to shoot the ball.”
Last season, Dragic took only 22 clutch shots – 80 fewer than Wade – and said he was OK deferring because of Wade’s greatness. He has more than doubled those clutch attempts this season.
“If those moments are there, this is the fun part of the game; you want to be the guy who can make plays, make shots,” said Dragic, whose status for Wednesday’s game against New Orleans remains in question because of an eye injury.
In fact, Dragic has outperformed the Bulls’ Wade in the clutch this season. Wade is shooting 38.3 percent in the clutch (23 for 60), including 3 for 12 on threes.
This, too, is notable: Since the Heat began winning in mid-January, most of the Heat’s clutch shots have been taken by Waiters (21 attempts) and Dragic (15).
And Waiters, who missed 11 of his first 13 clutch shots this season, has been outstanding in the clutch since mid-January, making 10 of 21 shots and shooting 53.8 percent on clutch threes (7 for 13), best among NBA players with at least 10 attempts.
“I am glad to be able to be in that position to take them shots and having the confidence of taking it and making it,” Waiters said.
With Wade and Deng gone, and Winslow out for the season, the Heat often has used Rodney McGruder, Waiters, Josh Richardson and James Johnson to defend high-scoring wing players.
Coaches and players have praised McGruder’s defense, but the NBA says McGruder is allowing players he’s guarding to shoot 49.6 percent, compared to the 45.5 percent they shoot overall. That’s worst among the Heat’s rotation players.
But that NBA.com statistic doesn’t take into account McGruder’s help defense or other intangible elements.
Conversely, players guarded by Richardson are shooting 38.2 percent, compared with 44.1 overall. That 38.2, from a defensive standpoint, is fourth-best among all NBA guards who have defended at least 100 shots.
“He has shown what potential he has defensively,” coach Erik Spoelstra said Sunday. “Really gets after it at that end of the floor.”
Waiters, meanwhile, is allowing players he’s guarding to shoot 40.4 percent (12th best among NBA guards, minimum 100 shots defended), compared with 44.7 percent overall. That’s better than Wade’s 43.1 percent allowed.
And Johnson is permitting players he’s guarding to shoot 39.1 percent (fourth best among NBA forwards), compared with 45.1 overall. For perspective, LeBron James allows players to shoot 42.2.
Dragic, incidentally, is allowing 44 percent, compared with 44.6 overall.
Centers naturally are going to give up higher shooting percentages than guards, and Hassan Whiteside is holding players he’s guarding to 46.2 percent, lower than their 48.6 average. But that ranks only 29th-best among qualifying centers.