Barry Jackson

Do you need a star in the clutch? Heat’s late-game numbers go against conventional wisdom

Miami Heat small forwards Josh Richardson (0) reacts after Sunday’s win against Utah. Richardson - and most of his Heat teammates - have played very well late in close games.
Miami Heat small forwards Josh Richardson (0) reacts after Sunday’s win against Utah. Richardson - and most of his Heat teammates - have played very well late in close games. mocner@miamiherald.com

Star players traditionally take over in clutch time, launching the key shots or facilitating with the game on the line.

And yet the Heat, a team without any stars in the traditional sense of the word, somehow ranks among the league’s best-performing teams late in close games.

The Heat closed Sunday’s 103-102 win against Utah with an 8-2 run — its fourth consecutive win by single digits.

So how is this happening?

Credit excellent work by nearly all of the rotation players — led by Josh Richardson and Kelly Olynyk — and smartly designed plays by the coaching staff.

What about those who say this team has no closer?

“They’d be a fool to think that,” forward James Johnson said. “We’ve got a couple on this team.”

In fact, Goran Dragic said this team has “a lot of guys” who are well-equipped to take late-game shots. 

For statistical purposes, the NBA defines clutch as the final five minutes of games with a margin of five points or fewer. The Heat is now 16-7 in games that fit that description, a 69.6 winning percentage that ranks fourth best in the league behind Boston, Golden State and San Antonio.

Only the Celtics have more clutch wins (20) than the Heat.

Richardson talks about the Heat’s comeback and his winning layup in Miami’s 103-102 win over Utah on Jan. 7, 2018

What’s more, Miami has outscored opponents by 50 points in 80 clutch minutes. Only Cleveland has a better plus-minus in the clutch (plus-54 in 86 minutes).

And consider this: The Heat is shooting 44.4 percent on clutch threes (20 for 45), which is best in the league. Miami’s 52.4 percent shooting from the field in the clutch is second best, behind only Boston’s 54.2 percent.

“You have to deal with some things that aren’t going your way and again show that resiliency just to find a way,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of his team’s resourcefulness late in close games.

A look at how each of the Heat’s rotation players has fared in the clutch:

▪ Olynyk. He is shooting 8 for 10 from the field in the clutch — that 80 percent is best in the league among all forwards and centers who have attempted at least 10 clutch shots. He’s also 10 for 12 from the line in the clutch, and Miami has outscored teams by 49 points in his 38 clutch minutes.

▪ Richardson. He’s 11 for 19 from the field in the clutch, 5 for 9 on clutch threes and 15 for 17 on clutch free throws, ranking among the league’s top forwards in all three of those categories.

Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra talks to the media after the Miami Heat defeats the New York Knicks 107-103 at AmericanAirlines Arena on Friday, January 5, 2018.

He has played a team-high 76 of the Heat’s 80 clutch minutes and Miami is plus-53 in those minutes. Among frontcourt players, only Cleveland’s Kevin Love and LeBron James have a better plus-minus in the clutch.

▪ Dragic. His plus-42 in 69 clutch minutes is best among any guards who don’t play for Cleveland. He has 41 clutch points and has shot 13 for 27 from the field and 12 for 15 on free throws.

▪ Dion Waiters. Miami is 8-6 in the clutch when he has played, 8-1 in the clutch when he hasn’t played.

Waiters was far more efficient in the clutch (51.4 percent shooting, 7 for 14 on threes) than he was overall this season before being sidelined by an ankle injury. He has 48 points in 48 clutch minutes.

▪ Hassan Whiteside. He has played only 28 of the Heat’s 80 clutch minutes, with Spoelstra lately using Olynyk and Johnson more often in those situations.

But Whiteside has 15 points and 13 rebounds — and Miami is a plus-24 — in those 28 clutch minutes, and his 63.6 percent clutch shooting (7 for 11) is fourth best among centers with at least 10 attempts.

▪  Wayne Ellington. Miami is plus 36 in his 30 clutch minutes, and he has shot 3 for 6 overall, and 2 for 5, on threes, in those minutes. And on Sunday, he effectively served as a decoy.

Dragic talks about the Heat’s clutch play of late and on Sunday in a 103-102 comeback win over the Jazz that extended Miami’s winning streak to four.

Trailing by a point with 7.8 seconds left, Spoelstra drew up a play that fooled the Jazz into thinking Dragic might pass to Ellington for a corner three. As the Jazz defense shifted toward Ellington, Dragic inbounded the ball to Richardson, who drove for the go-ahead layup.

▪ Tyler Johnson. He has attempted only one shot (a made three) in 32 clutch minutes, but Miami is plus-38 in those minutes.

▪ James Johnson. He’s shooting only 4 for 15 from the field and 1 for 6 on threes in the clutch, but the Heat is plus-23 in his 45 clutch minutes.

▪ Also: The Heat’s only rotation players with negative plus-minus numbers in the clutch are Bam Adebayo (minus-22 in 26 minutes) and Justise Winslow (minus-nine in nine minutes).

The Heat now will see whether its clutch play will continue during a stretch of 11 of 14 on the road, beginning Tuesday in Toronto.

“I think we’re growing up, learning how to play together,” Richardson said. “Being able to come together like this and show so much grit is big for us. A lot of teams aren’t getting this type of experience this early.”

• Neither Waiters (ankle) nor Winslow (knee) accompanied the team on its two-game trip to Toronto and Indiana. 

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