The Clutch Shot, The Open Shot

“Who’s going to take the last shot? Whoever is open.” – Erik Spoelstra

That phrase has become a popular refrain not just around the Miami HEAT, where the question of ownership regarding final shots has been asked a dozen times a hundred times, but among people who, in one manner or another, prefer efficiency over heroics.

But statues aren’t constructed for the guy who hits the open shot. Facing decades of recorded history, including tomes on last-shot heroics alone, the open man comment draws its fair share of raised eyebrows no matter how often it’s proved how unlikely a contested jumper is to fall.

That reaction is understandable. NBA games are star vehicles just as much as movies, and there’s a reason you don’t see many movies greenlit with the plot structure of The Departed. We tend to want our main characters directly involved in the story until the final, fade-to-black moments.

It’s easier to celebrate Dwyane Wade hitting a game-winning shot, even when he had to take his man off the dribble, pump fake him in the air, draw contact and shoot with his body contorted, than it is a player that simply stood in a spot and waited for a pass.

With Miami’s ensemble cast, there’s a rare opportunity for a middle ground. The star and the open man can be the same person. And against the Indiana Pacers, he was.

“We have a lot of weapons,” Spoelstra said. “We’re at our best when you’re not necessarily sure where that shot is coming from. Guys are showing much more patience and trust to use their skill set to create an opportunity, the best opportunity for the team.”

The best part about the path to LeBron James being open for a corner three is just how many opportunities there were.

Our stage is set with James taking the ball out of bounds in front of Miami’s bench, joined by Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier and Wade.

The first stage of this possession is also its most scripted. Invoking the game-winning set used against Minnesota earlier this season – itself taken from a Boston victory over the HEAT years before – Spoelstra called for a lob to Wade.

“Spo wanted to extend the game and go for a quick two,” James said.

As with most of Spoelstra’s late-game sets this season, the key initial trigger is have a shooter, Chalmers in this instance, run the baseline. If Chalmers remains on the weakside of the floor, his man is free to sink into the lane and provide help while still being within range to close out. Simply running 30 feet effectively clears the paint.

While Chalmers is doing this, Wade runs off the screen set by Battier and quickly fakes like he is coming to get the ball with the big, arcing curl. He’s got a step on Paul George even before he passes the second pick set by Bosh, and even as George takes the more direct route back to Wade, Wade’s hand is raised for the lob.

“I saw him open but I didn’t want to force the pass over the top,” James said.

Then things begin to shift from reading a script to acting off practiced habits.

“I got the ball, gave it to Shane, got the handoff and went over a screen and started to attack,” James said. “But when I spun I saw two guys, so I hit Rio.”

James didn’t just spin. He spun to split the defenders when Tyler Hansbrough played him hard off the screen. He spun to draw the attention of all five Pacers on the floor.

It took a jump pass to get there, but the ball found the empty space.

“Rio had a good three,” James said.

“But then he put it on the ground and I kept screaming his name for him to throw it back to me,” Wade said.

“We really just worked on a similar situation our last practice,” Spoelstra said. “The same type of thing, the trust and the ball movement, and if you don’t have it, put it on the floor and try to find the next guy.”

Chalmers did.

And then so did Wade.

“D-Wade had a good lane too and he drove it to my man,” James said. “My man helped a little bit.”

“I decided to drive in and kick it to LeBron,” Wade said.

Wade pump fakes George and gets the step on him, holding James’ man, Granger, in the paint. But there’s a reason Granger is held in the paint when he’s the only person in reasonable position to defend a pass to James. With Chalmers and Battier spreading the floor, Bosh plays a huge role in essentially boxing Hansbrough out of the play. Without Bosh doing this, Hansbrough is free to step in Wade’s driving lane, with West available on the back side to slide in and defend a dump off pass to Bosh.

“We were looking for an opportunity to maybe get a quick two, but if not [have] that patience to hunt down an open three,” Spoelstra said.

With Hansbrough sealed off and Granger sucked in, the two-pointer was no longer the goal. The hunt was on, and Wade found his window.

“The biggest thing is we all had trust. Everyone was touching the ball and moving it until we got the shot that we wanted,” Wade said.

“Corner pocket. Bucket.”

Able to get the shot they wanted in ten seconds. In six dribbles. In four passes.

“The best thing about that whole possession was the four passes, and that we didn’t panic going down the stretch and we were able to get a really clean look from the corner,” James said.

“It was good to see that come to fruition,” Spoelstra said. “It was great poise to not just jack up a three.”

It wasn’t just that the HEAT didn’t jack up a three. It’s that they didn’t put themselves in position to have to jack up a three. James got the ball, and he drove to the rim. Chalmers got the ball and he drove. Wade got the ball and immediately he opted to drive. Decisions were made with haste, they were made to force the defense to react, and they were made with trust.

“We’re getting more experience day by day,” Bosh. “That’s the biggest thing overall, our experience. Our trust in each other. Making sure we move the ball to make defenses move their feet and encouraging guys to take the shot if they’re open.”

That part about making sure they move the ball might just be the most important thing to come out of Miami’s eventual overtime victory. The HEAT have actually been quite good at executing late-game sets off of a huddle or play call since the second half of last season. Where they’ve struggled the most is what to do when there is no play to run. When things break down, when the defense reacts to your first two, three or four triggers, when the spacing goes every which way but spaced.

In the past, after a pass or two, this is the type of possession that would have resulted in a forced shot. In the shot we want – out of a yearning for the incredible or a difficulty with crediting multiple people with a single success – to see. A possession results in the opportunity for a self-made hero.

Even though the HEAT got one of those heroes minutes later with Wade’s shot, this is the possession that features collective growth. Rather, a growing belief in the open man.

“It was the right play, and guys are gaining confidence in that,” Spoelstra.

Make or miss. The right play.