Ray Allen and The Impossible Decision

by Couper Moorhead
HEAT.com

How does Ray Allen get so open?

It’s one of the NBA’s most perplexing questions. How does the best shooter in the history of the league, the guy who hits almost half of his shots in the corners, get an open look with his team down in the fourth quarter and the shot-clock turned off? It happened tonight to the Denver Nuggets, beat by Allen and a four-point play after a LeBron James kickout pass, but this wasn’t a one-time thing. Throughout his career, Allen has strangely found himself open. Perhaps not open by just anyone’s standards, but open enough that, with Allen’s quick release, the defense ceases to exist.

It wasn’t even the first time it happened in Miami’s 119-116 victory over Denver.

Six minutes before James stampeded towards the rim, caught Corey Brewer a step out of position and found Allen for the game-winning four-point play, Allen found himself on James’ side of the court on consecutive possessions. And on consecutive possessions, the Nuggets defenses shaded a step too close to James and a step too far from Allen. Consecutive possessions, consecutive threes.

Allen doesn’t get open here by mistake. If he stands still and lets the defense do whatever it wants, he becomes a smaller, more difficult target to hit and an easier player for the defense to track. Instead, he keys in on his defender, not the ball, and waits for him to look away – the same way Dwyane Wade waits for the right moment to make a cut to the rim along the baseline.

“I always want to get out of his eyesight,” Allen said of his defenders. “Because if I can get out of his eyesight it forces him to have to drop lower and it gives whoever has the ball more room to operate.

“It’s really just trying to stay moving and give these guys room to operate and force the defense to really decide what it is they’re going to do.”

Decide is the operative word here. By shifting his position on the floor even slightly, Allen is forcing the defense into an agonizing decision: do I help on the ball or stay with the potential shooter? Most coaches stress to their players that it isn’t their responsibility to help from the strong-side corner, but some defenders are better at creating chaos than others, and those are the players willing to gamble on a steal.

And when LeBron James is the player driving by just mere feet away, there is an even greater temptation to go for the ball. But even when it’s James on the drive and Allen in the corner, according to Shane Battier, there’s only one thing to do.

“There’s no decision,” Battier said. “It’s still Ray Allen in the corner. The most efficient shot in NBA history is pretty much Ray Allen in the corner. There’s no decision there. I think effectively, Ray Allen in the corner has a higher efficiency than LeBron at the rim, which is unbelievable because LeBron is probably a top-five player in the history of the game of basketball. So there’s no decision if you’re a mathematician.”

Battier’s math is on point. According to NBA.com, James shot 68.4 percent at the rim last season while Allen shot 48.3 percent on corner threes, but because Allen’s shot were worth an extra point, his effective field-goal percentage was 72.5. You’re reading that right. Allen in the corner was a more efficient shot last year than James at the rim.

In other words, Corey Brewer chose poorly. But it was an understandable choice given the personnel involved.

“It’s LeBron, though. You give [Brewer] a pass because it’s LeBron.”

It’s not just James, its James getting a step on his defender and powering his way into the lane, threatening to put your team in a 0-3 hole to start the season.

Here’s the setup:

James runs off a few screens and Allen inbounds the ball as Mario Chalmers runs to the corner. Before the set even begins in earnest, the paint is almost completely cleared. James is technically the second big on the floor, so Kenneth Faried is pulled far from the basket, and Chris Bosh has already scored 40 points with a berserker barrage of jumpers and drives, so Danilo Gallinari isn’t giving him any space, either.

That leaves Ty Lawson tracking Chalmers to the corner, Andre Iguodala marking Dwyane Wade and Brewer chasing Allen.

Immediately, Allen runs a sort of crossing patter with Wade, with Wade’s action dragging Iguodala out of the lane, giving James a clear path to the rim and Brewer a decision to make.

By looking at this play in still images, we’re not giving Brewer the benefit of motion. As you can see in the above image, in the instance he turns his head, it appears as though James is about to conquer any molecule in sight – he has a step on Faried and all three of the other Denver defenders are on the other side of the lane.

“Not only is that happening,” Bosh said. “But it’s happening in milliseconds, so you have a decision to make. What do you do? That’s why we draw it up like that.

“But the hardest thing,” he added, “is just, when you’re playing in the flow of the game, you want to play defense, you want to help your team out, and all it takes is one step, just a little bit of slippage.”

Tough as a call as it was for Brewer, it’s exactly what both James and Allen were looking for.

“I never predetermine my plays, but once I drove left I got eye contact with Brewer and I knew Ray was going to slide corner,” James said. “We haven’t been playing together that long, but I’ve seen on the other side what he’s going to do. I’m just happy I was able to put it on the money and he took care of the rest.”

We’ll never know what would have happened had James continued on to the rim – given the position of the defense, he almost assuredly would have scored or been sent to the line – and it’s hard to imagine that just one step in the wrong direction, the flap of a butterfly’s wings, can lose the game justlikethat.

But it did.

“It’s tricky because as a defender because you want to help and get your hands in and the minute you do that you’re already beat,” Allen said. “That’s when I just stopped in the corner to give him space so he get to the hole or if not I’m his release so I’m always open.”

“My guy had to make a choice,” Allen said. “I can’t say it was the wrong choice, but it ended up being the wrong choice for him.”

For once, the HEAT benefitted from such a choice.

“We’ve been on the other end as the recipient of that type of pain in the locker room when he puts the dagger to your heart with the three and the and-one just for the heck of it,” Spoelstra said.

Maybe it’s something the league will never figure out, this conundrum. Allen certainly isn’t the only shooter that gets left open in big spots, but everything is going to seem more egregious when the shooter in question is attached to the “Greatest Shooter of All Time” moniker. As tough as it is for us to put ourselves in the position of James or Wade when they are at the top of the key with the ball and the clock ticking down, it’s just as difficult to empathize with Brewer as he’s given a single heartbeat to solve a mind bender.

Maybe there just isn’t a good answer for ‘How does Ray Allen get so open?’

“You asked how does he get open, but . . . it just happens,” Bosh said.

Fortunately for the HEAT, the answer to this question doesn’t matter. They just get to keep asking it.

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