MILWAUKEE -- An hour before the Miami Heat took on the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night, Wayne Ellington stood in the corner, ripping the net with jumper after jumper, swish after swish. He couldn't miss. He sunk 13 in a row before apparently deciding that was enough, and moving on to a different spot. There was no defense, but it didn't matter; there aren't many more beautiful sights on a basketball court than a pure shooter catching fire. And Wayne Ellington is as pure a shooter as you'll find in the league.
"He's a walking … trigger -- what do they call that in a video game? A cheat code? He's a walking cheat code," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said before the Heat's 106-101 victory. "He's our version of this generation of the Miami Heat of Ray Allen."
That's high praise. And perhaps too high, some would say, though it doesn't really matter. The point remains: Ellington is a phenomenal shooter, and that ability has a clear, positive effect on the Heat.
A Heat team that, for the second season in a row, has started out slow, then used a strong run in January to turn things around. They're 8-2 in the month, tied with the Golden State Warriors for the best record since the start of the new year, and have surged up the Eastern Conference standings. At 27-19, Miami is now fourth in the East, and just half game behind the Cavaliers for third. And as he has been all season long, Ellington has been key to the Heat's success.
"He brings a great energy at both ends of the court," Josh Richardson told CBS Sports after Miami's win in Milwaukee. "Everybody knows when he comes in, you've got to be right, because he raises the level."
Ellington certainly raises the level -- especially on the offensive end. It's clear when you see him do things like score a game-winning basket in the final second to lift the Heat over the Raptors on the road, or score nine of his 26 points in the fourth quarter of a big comeback win over the Hornets.
🚨GAME WINNER ALERT🚨 pic.twitter.com/FOWJuvYK0v— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) January 10, 2018
But it's also clear when you delve into the advanced stats. For the season, Ellington has the best net rating of any rotation player on the team. The Heat outscore teams by 2.4 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor, while they get outscored by 4.7 points per 100 possessions when he sits.
And it's been pretty much the same story during January. Over its 8-2 stretch, Miami has been plus-5.3 points per 100 possessions with Ellington on the floor, and minus-3.4 points per 100 possessions when he goes to the bench.
With Ellington on the court in January, the Heat's offensive rating is a robust 109.9, but when he takes a seat, it craters to 98.5. Essentially, they're a top-five offense when Ellington plays, and the worst offense in the league when he doesn't.
The veteran guard, for his part, believes the success the Heat have with him on the floor is due to more than just shooting. His teammates are just comfortable with him out there on the floor, he explained.
"It's not just shooting. I have a presence, it's a veteran presence," Ellington told CBS Sports as he got ready to take the floor in Milwaukee. "Obviously, shooting has a lot to do with it. Even when I'm not taking shots, teams are worried about me, which opens things for everybody else, our attackers, guys trying to get in the paint, spreading the floor, of course. I think it's just I'm comfortable out there, guys are comfortable with me being out there with them, and I think that just helps the flow of our team."
Be that as it may, however, shooting is Ellington's main attribute, and that ability is what opens up so much for the Heat when he's on the floor.
"We need him, because he gives us a different type of scoring," Goran Dragic said in the visitor's locker room in Milwaukee. "You know, not only pick-and-roll, or penetrating, or putting the ball inside, but when you need a 3 or when the other team is inside the paint, then Wayne Ellington can do his job. Probably he's one of the purest shooters in the game right now."
Perhaps most impressive about Ellington's pure shooting ability is that he's able to stay efficient even though he shoots high quantities of 3-pointers, and gets the ball up remarkably fast, often with defenders right in his face.
For the season, Ellington is tied for ninth in the league in 3-point attempts per game, putting up 7.3 a night. And of the players in the top 10, only Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Paul George shoot better than Ellington's 41 percent. He has the ball for less than two seconds on over 80 percent of his 3-point attempts, and actually shoots better with defenders right on top of him.
Against defense that NBA.com defines the as "tight" (closest defender is 2-4 feet away), Ellington makes 42.9 percent of his 3s. But when he's "wide open" (no defender within six feet), he shoots 41.7 percent from 3-point land.
That might seem strange, and sometimes Ellington's ability to make tough shots even amazes other players during games. But he makes them because those are the shots he practices.
"All the shots that I take, I practice a lot, a lot of repetitions," Ellington explained. "I think that's the key for me, just getting a lot of repetitions up. I think that's definitely why, you know in the games, people be like, 'Jesus, you shoot it so fast, you didn't even look at the rim on that one.' It's like, man, I practice that a lot. It didn't happen overnight for me."
Heat lifer Udonis Haslem agreed that repetition and routine is the key to Ellington's shot making, and said it reminded him of how Ray Allen prepared.
"Routine. The routine is what stands out for me with Wayne. His routine is so stressful," Haslem said. "He puts himself in stressful situations over and over and over. He just creates repetition. He has a great routine. That's one thing I always remember about Ray. He always got his routine in every single day. It wasn't like a lackadaisical, slow-motion routine, it was full speed. Everything was game-like situations. That's the same thing Wayne does, and I see that carryover in the game."
Ellington added that along with practice, the confidence he gets from Spoelstra and the coaching staff has been key to his strong play. He's averaging a career high 11.2 points per game this season, and his 41 percent mark from 3 is the best he's shot from downtown since 2013-14.
"Coach Spo giving me the confidence to keep shooting it, that's been key for me," Ellington reflected. "He's the first coach that really said 'just play your game and take your shots, and take 'em with confidence.' He wants me to take more shots than I actually want to take, so when your coach instills that kind of confidence in you, it's a recipe for success for sure."
That approach, Ellington believes, is key not only for him, but for the entire roster. "Absolutely," Ellington said, when asked about the Heat's mythical winning culture helping them have success. "That's a huge part of it. The culture, winning atmosphere, the willingness to develop the players, and get 'em in the best shape of their life."
That culture is why the Heat were able to turn around an 11-30 start and go 30-11 in the second half last season, and it's why they've been able to turn an 11-13 start into a 27-19 record this campaign. It's also while they'll likely make a return to the postseason after barely missing out last spring.
Ellington, though, is making no promises -- at least not yet.
"Absolutely, making the playoffs is first, but we're taking it one game at a time," he said, sounding very much like a veteran. "We know what we're capable of. We're continuing to get better everyday, we're continuing to grow, and we'll see what happens."