The Miami Heat Are Smarter Than The Other Playoff Teams

May 26, 2014

Miami Heats guard Ray Allen celebrates after scoring one of four three-pointers in the fourth quarter of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Credit Al Diaz / Miami Herald

By milking the corner three-point shot, the Miami Heat have backed the Indiana Pacers into a corner.

Following Monday night’s 90 to 102 loss, the Pacers find themselves in some troubling company: More than 200 teams have gone down 3-1 in an NBA best-of-seven series, only eight of them have ever come back to win the series.

With one more win, the so-called “big three” -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- would reach their fourth-straight NBA Finals, something only three other teams have accomplished since 1957.

It’s easy to chalk up the Heat’s success to putting, arguably, three of the league’s best players on the same team. Not quite so easy, according to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal:

“To put it simply, the Heat are no longer just rich with talent,” writes WSJ sports reporter Ben Cohen. “Now they are playing smarter than everyone else, too.”

The three-point shot from the corner of the court is almost two feet closer than the standard three (23.75 feet versus 22 feet). And on average, teams make 39 percent of their corner threes as opposed to 35 percent from the other three-point spots. Cohen explains that makes the corner three second only in efficiency to the slam dunk.

Here, Ben Cohen explains how the Heat have so successfully exploited one of the great shortcuts in all of sports.

Where Miami Heat has taken its shots this playoff (current through Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals).

You write, “the Heat are no longer just rich with talent. Now they are playing smarter than everyone else, too.” What exactly are they doing?

So for the last two seasons the Miami Heat have led the NBA in corner threes. In fact, since 1997 no team has made more corner threes than the Heat did last year.

So this was a big jump from even when LeBron James joined the Heat in 2010. It really came in the last two seasons, when they added Ray Allen, after Heat coach Erik Spoelstra started experimenting with some smaller lineups in the 2012 playoffs to surround LeBron James with shooters when he drives to the rim.

Because, of course, the reason they’re getting so many corner threes goes back to LeBron James. Because when he drives he gets double-teamed and triple-teamed and that opens up the corners. And when you surround him with shooters like Ray Allen and Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers, that’s when you attempt a lot of corner threes and that’s when you make a lot of corner threes.

You have this great quote Shane Battier gave you. It says: “It’s hard to beat the math of blackjack in Vegas... it’s hard to beat the math of the corner three-point shot."

I don’t know this for a fact, but I would bet that Shane Battier knows the exact numbers that he’s referring to, which is that NBA teams shoot 39 percent on corner threes, up from 35 percent on all other threes. And, of course, because three-pointers are... worth three points, that makes every corner three attempt this season worth 1.17 points. That makes it the most valuable shot in the NBA other than a slam dunk (worth an average of 1.22 points per attempt).

Do people talk about this corner three in terms of changing the game in a positive way? A negative way? What’s the general line of thought about this very exploitable way that the court is set up?

Well, I think the beauty of the corner three-pointer is that it’s an advantage that’s available to any team that’s willing to take advantage of it. Another team that does it really well is the San Antonio Spurs. ... The thing with the Heat is that the one team that’s really good at making offenses less efficient is the Indiana Pacers, which is one reason why people think the Pacers can give the Heat a run for their money before the NBA Finals.

In case you needed further proof, we found some Ray Allen-centric video evidence of how the Heat pick teams apart from the shortened three-point line:

Exhibit A: Ray Allen’s Game 6, championship-saving three from 2013.

Exhibit B: Ray Allen’s Game 5, Nets-beating three from 2014.

Exhibit C: Pretty much Ray Allen’s entire Game 3, Pacer-crushing fourth-quarter performance from Saturday night.