Posted by Matt Moore
The questions began being asked as soon as the smoke from the Miami Triad's hyper-celebratory introductory event had cleared, literally. When you've got three All-Stars, three of the top ten players in the NBA (as of last season anyway) on the same team, the question's pretty natural. You expect them to be in the playoffs, which means close games, which begs this query:
"Who's going to take the last shot for the Heat?"
It was a storyline that continued throughout the season, particularly when the Heat were clanging last-second shot after last-second shot. Their biggest Achilles' heel throughout the year has been figuring out how to get the guy who needs the ball an opportunity to win games. It wasn't just figuring out which of James or Wade, (and sure, Bosh, why not, even though no one thought of him as closer) should be the one handling the rock, it was about how to set them up, whether to run the pick and roll, where they should attack and when. It was a mess. Consistently, from the beginning though, the Heat had their story to the press: "Whoever has the best opportunity." It wasn't who was open, it was about whoever had the best opportunity. They kept that message up. When LeBron James struggled more than the others in knocking down shots at the buzzer or late in games, the popular opinion rose to the unknown. "It should be Dwyane Wade," they said, "he's been the guy in Miami for years and has a ring! This is Wade's team!" Which is ridiculous, of course. Wade may have that ring, but he and James are on equal footing. Still, with all the bricks LeBron had made in the final seconds throughout the year, they could have built a university to study the question of who else should get the ball besides him.
Then a funny thing happened.
LeBron became "The Closer."
His last real failure in the clutch was against Philadelphia, having his final shot blocked by Elton Brand that would have helped the Heat sweep the Sixers. Huge failure that it was, it took the Heat a whole other 48 minutes of play time to finish off the Sixers, who were outmatched from the start. But that blocked shot echoed the same storyline. "LeBron isn't clutch." And let's be clear, that wasn't some media-conceived fairytale. James was terrible in the final moments of games decided by five points or less. He shot just 43.6 percent in those situations. To put that in perspective, Mo Willilams, James' running mate in Cleveland had a similar number of attempts and made more. He was simply not good in the biggest of moments. It seemed like that regular season calamity was going to carry over into the postseason, and if that was the case, how were the Heat going to advance?
Except then in the Boston series, when the Heat needed James most, he absolutely dominated the closing stretches of games. While Celtics fans trusted in James' failures to repeat themselves against the team many felt made him "quit" the year before, James took over... on both sides of the ball. His defense fueled his offense and his offense fueled his defense. James closed out the Celtics by scoring ten straight points. The steal and slam off of Paul Pierce was the exclamation point. The drive-by layup was simply the underline or highlight or some other editing mechanism on a statement already etched in black ink.
But sure, James had one good game. Could he do it again?
Then in Game 2 versus the Bulls, it was once again James stepping up. He vanquished Paul Pierce, the Celtics' closer in Game 5. In Game 2, he guarded the MVP Derrick Rose, who did not score as the Heat put the game away. And on the other side, James scored nine of the Heat's final 13, including pull-up threes and dagger jumpers. And when James gets that jumper falling, there's simply no way to stop him, the same as it is with Derrick Rose most times.
ESPN dug through some numbers and found that James has used over 52 percent of the "clutch" possessions for the Heat in the playoffs. His PER in those situations, per 36 minutes is over 40. If you're not familiar with the statistic, the baseline is 15, anything over 20 is great. James' is a 40. He's not just producing efficient shooting, he's doing it all. Dwyane Wade may be able to pull off the same kinds of circus shots, but James' overall production is off the charts, and as unbelievable as it may sound given their positions and reputations, James is a better three-point shooter, especially lately.
But the best part of this partnership is that Wade won't be demanding the ball. As long as Wade wins, he's happy. And he's seen enough of James to trust him to put the ball in the basket, even from the perimeter. James' three-pointer is often criticized as we demand that he use that insane athleticism and huge frame to drive time after time, but the reality is that James has shot a decent 34 percent in the playoffs. That's not great. What is great? James is shooting 50 percent from the arc in his last three playoff games. As he told the Miami Herald, there's a time when he trusts it, and he's got Wade's support to trust his outside shot.
“Early in the game, we didn’t want to settle for those outside threes,” James said. “It was there late [in Game 2] and [Mike] Bibby set a good screen for me. The shot was there, so I took it.”via LeBron James embraces role of closer for Miami Heat - Miami Heat - MiamiHerald.com.
James pushed the Heat’s lead to five with a midrange jumper. No apologies this time. James’ late-game offense tipped the series’ momentum in Miami’s favor.
“LeBron was really big down the stretch and hit the shots we needed,” Wade said. “He also guarded [Derrick Rose]. His three was really big. That’s why we put the ball in his hands. He’s going to make the big plays.”
It makes a certain amount of sense that this switch has occurred. The first act of James' career foretold an unstoppable stream of MVPs and championship rings, the next "Greatest Ever" candidate. Then that script flipped and he wound up as the questioned "quitter" who failed in the clutch, didn't shake the other team's hand after a series loss, failed time and time again and then bailed on his squad for nicer weather and buddy buddy teammates. He was the un-clutch villian everyone loved to root against and rejoiced when he confirmed their belief in his failure. Now he's flipping it again, dominating down the stretch on both sides and playing phenomenal basketball. The series is tied 1-1, and despite a blowout in Game 1, looks every bit the long, grueling series everyone thought it would be. In a series like that you need someone who can take over the game late, to have that guy who you look to. After a season of uncertainty as the Heat tried unsuccessfully to answer that question, it appears they have the solution.
LeBron James is the closer, and if he continues to play at this level late in close games, the Heat are going to be nearly unstoppable.
(Now watch Chicago win a close Game 3. It's been that kind of series, that kind of year.)