Ray Allen's Subtle Dagger
Dion Waiters, meet Corey Brewer.
You both have something in common. Each of you was assigned to Ray Allen in the closing seconds of a tense matchup. You saw LeBron James barrel into the lane, going right towards the rim. You felt the temptation to help a teammate, to keep an incredible finisher from getting a chance to finish. You both gave in to that temptation.
Now, you both know the cost of doing so.
While the result of Waiters taking a step away from Allen in the last 30 seconds of Miami’s 110-108 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers resulted in Allen getting open and sinking the go-ahead three, it was a very understandable decision. Waiters is still in his first month as an NBA player, and college players just don’t move like Allen does. Even Allen didn’t move like he does now back at the University of Connecticut.
“I didn’t know anything about basketball back then,” Allen said.
But he does now, and regardless of how the possession was actually playing out, you can’t harp on a rookie too much for committing the same mistake plenty of veterans have made.
“We’ve all done it. Our principles are to stay in the corner, but I’ve come off before,” Dwyane Wade said, referencing a corner three Luol Deng made against him in Chicago two years ago. “Sometimes, the ball draws you, and it drew him to try and help his teammate.”
Waiters was drawn in not just to help on the ball, but to help on the ball that happened to be in the hands of LeBron James, who had 30 points at the time and has been the league’s deadliest player in late-game possessions this season. It wasn’t James attacking off an isolation, either. It was James playing a role in one of Erik Spoelstra’s go-to sets: the corner screen.
The setup is fairly simple. Miami puts James in the far corner with the intention of getting the ball to the top of the key. Last week against Milwaukee, the HEAT used this set four times in the last five minutes of regulation and overtime – Wade would bring the ball up and Shane Battier would run directly to the corner to trigger the initial option with James. Here, with the ball starting on the sidelines, Mario Chalmers slots in for an injured Battier, sets a quick screen at the free-throw line to make sure Wade gets the ball, and then begins the corner action.
James hesitates for a moment, likely to see whether or not his defender will cheat over the screen thus opening up a backdoor cutting lane. When that doesn’t happen, he runs a curl to the elbow, where Wade has an easy passing lane, but only after James clearly has his shoulders in front of the defender.
Had there not been that slight hiccup, James likely would have had a direct line to the rim. Because Alonzo Gee bumped James just enough, the arc of the curl becomes wider. The parabola grows, if you will, and James’ path goes from the front of the rim to just to the right of it, where Anderson Varejao looms.
To Varejao’s credit, he plays this perfectly. Because Bosh was trying to space the floor without getting in Allen’s way, he’s stuck in no-man’s land along the baseline. Varejao is able to step up and seal off James from the rim while also cutting off the short passing lane to Bosh. James can always pivot back towards the middle of the paint, but the initial curl has been thwarted and Gee has caught up.
Meanwhile, Allen watches his opponent.
It doesn’t really matter that Waiters takes a step towards James. Just as Brewer turned his head as James drove past Kenneth Faried a few weeks ago, Waiters watches James as Allen watches Waiters. And… “He’s gone,” Wade says of Allen. “You can’t take your eye off of him.” By the time Waiters realizes that James has been momentarily stopped and tries to locate Allen, his mark is up the floor, on the wing, with enough space to breakdance.
“Being on the opposing end [before] I always know that Ray is always moving,” James said. “I’ve seen it many times going against him. We have a connection. I know that he’s not going to be where his defender is. He’s going to continue to move.”
It’s the most subtle movement. A ninja in the shadows, Allen steps softly around the outskirts of your vision as though he were using the upside-down stairways of M.C. Escher. Here one moment, hitting a game-winner over there the next.
“Whenever the defense turns their head, he runs into the passing lane, and you see him right in front of you,” Spoelstra said. “It’s an incredible skill that he has. Everybody talks about his shooting but it’s his movement to get into open spaces. He’s a moving target. So when you think he’s standing there, there’s dribble penetration and everybody is watching the ball, he finds a way to get in front of the vision of the passer.”
“It’s Ray Allen, man,” Wade said. “There are not too many people that you ever say that you’ve seen play like him – that can do those things, that’s what makes him special.”
It all comes back to that other special guy on the court, the one drawing three defenders at once and making the pass. There is always going to be a certain degree of magnetism when the ball enters the paint on a crucial play, but James is a magnet right off the ACME factory line. While many players would wait in the corner if their defender left them as Allen’s did and wait for a pass, far more would have forced a bad shot in James’ spot. But he keeps reading the defense and finding the open player, and as much as James trusts that Allen will find the open space when the defense reacts, Allen and the rest of the team trusts that James will find them.
“He got criticized over it,” Allen said, recalling the pass James made to Udonis Haslem in Utah last March. “People were talking about, ‘Should he have made that pass’ and everybody where I was, we all said he made the right play. That was the play, if you had it again, you make that play again because that’s what being a team is. You rely on your guys.”
If there’s anything to take away from the HEAT’s performances at this early juncture in the season, it’s that this is a team. There are plenty of defensive issues to clean up, but there’s a reason Miami has outscored opponents by 44 in the last five minutes of close games. This is a team, one operating with extreme confidence down the stretch in games, some in which they hadn’t even played particularly well. And when a team is playing at that level, all it takes is a turn of the head to come away with flawless execution.