Everything came so easy on opening night -- the layups, rim-rattling dunks and alley -oops -- that coach Erik Spoelstra knew better than to believe scoring 74 points in the paint was going to become the new norm for the Miami Heat.
“That’s who we were tonight,” Spoelstra cautioned then. “It’s not always going to work out that way.”
Two weeks and five games later, the Heat hasn’t stopped attacking the rim. The results, however, are drastically different.
Lanes once open for Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic to maneuver through most of the preseason have become bogged down with defenders, who don’t fear the Heat’s outside shooting and know the guys trying to score in the paint aren’t struggling to score. And unless something changes soon, this could quickly become a long season for the Heat.
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“They’re taking everything away,” a frustrated Dragic said Wednesday after practice. “Like I said, everybody is inside the paint. They’re so scared of the alley-oops. So, now our first look is going to be to kick the ball out, to spray the ball. Then, if you’re going to make a couple threes then they probably won’t shrink so much. Then, when you open it up, then maybe you can throw lobs. But right now it’s really tough.”
Since its 74-point in the paint explosion in Orlando, the Heat hasn’t topped 46 in a game and has averaged 39.2, which ranks in the bottom eight in the league.
It’s not that Miami isn’t getting into the paint. The Heat’s 44.2 field goal attempts within 10 feet of the rim lead the NBA. It’s that they’re converting at 44.9 percent around the rim -- well below the league average of 55.9 percent -- and rank last in the NBA in shooting (48.7 percent) when shooting within 10 feet of the hoop.
“Most of those shots that we take there are four, five guys in the paint,” Dragic said. “So it’s really tough to make those. So we need to spread it outside.”
Part of the issue is the fact the Heat don’t have the same quality of finishers around the basket as it did a year ago.
Last season, Miami averaged 38.2 shots within 10 feet of the basket (10th) and ranked sixth in field goal percentage (57.6) from that range. Nine regular rotation players were shooting better than 50 percent within 10-feet of the rim.
This season, there are four: Willie Reed (76.5 percent), Whiteside (61.4 percent), Dragic (57.6 percent) and Tyler Johnson (54.2 percent).
James Johnson (43.5 percent), Justise Winslow (34.7 percent) and Dion Waiters (29.4 percent) are all shooting significantly lower within 10 feet of the basket than they were last season.
“We have a lot of guys that like to get to the rim and attack and we’ve just got to do a better job of knowing when to put something on the rim and trying to finish versus kicking it out,” said Winslow, who last season shot 51.3 percent on shots within 10 feet of the rim.
“Some of the shots I’ve taken have just missed, a lot of layups last game. I think I shoot two or three bad shots a game that I should actually kick out. It’s just being mindful of that.”
The issue for the Heat is that kicking out to open shooters doesn’t always end well. Dragic (63.2 percent) and Johnson (57.1 percent) are the only shooters on the team converting over 50 percent on catch-and-shoots.
Rodney McGruder (44.4 percent), Waiters (41.2 percent) and three-point specialist Luke Babbitt (35.3 percent) are all struggling in catch and shoot situations. Winslow is shooting an atrocious 17.4 percent on catch and shoots (4-for-23).
“It’s early in the season,” Winslow said. “So, we can fix it.”