By Marc D'Amico
January 20, 2011
WALTHAM, Mass. – Ray Allen hit a 21-foot jumper with 24.5 seconds remaining on the clock to give Boston a win over Detroit Wednesday night in the TD Garden. It wasn’t a surprise that he nailed the game-winner despite the fact that he had missed six of his seven shot attempts before that bucket. It seems as if he makes one of those shots on a bi-weekly basis.
That bucket did, however, spark many to ask themselves the following: What is it that makes Ray Allen so great at hitting a quick-release shot, no matter what the circumstances may be? The answers may surprise you.
There’s a reason why Allen is currently approaching the all-time record for 3-pointers in a career, and there’s a reason why he is the go-to guy for Boston when it needs free throws down the stretch of a game. He is one of the purest shooters of all time, and he has put in plenty of work to reach that level of consistency.
It would be difficult for anyone to find a player who racks up the countless hours of repetitions that Allen does on a daily basis. He shows up to the arena four hours before tip off to get his personal workout in. He stays late after practice sessions to continue working on his ageless shooting stroke. A lifetime of practice has resulted in one of the most textbook releases the game has ever seen, but the shot doesn’t go in if he can’t get it off, right?
When Allen is in an arena four hours early or he’s on the practice court in Waltham, Mass., the world seems crystal clear. There are no defenders throwing hip checks to bump him off of his rhythm. There aren't thousands of fans screaming at him hoping to crush his concentration. He doesn’t have to worry about the tactics Doc Rivers was taught as a youngster to knock shooters like Allen off of their game.
“We were taught early, because I had a tremendous high school coach, that if you could mess a guy’s speed up, you could mess his shot up,” Rivers said. “We used to do everything to, I wouldn’t say try to trip guys, but we’d try to tangle their feet up.”
Such lessons are still being taught to this day, and you can bet your life's savings that Allen has to deal with those tactics on a nightly basis in the NBA. And so the difficulty of getting a critical basket isn’t all about making the shot. The magic happens in the moments that lead up to the shot becoming a possibility.
It’s easy to get a shot off when the ball is in your hands. We see it all of the time from players like Paul Pierce, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. Allen’s crunch time shots are of a different breed because he creates his shots while playing off the ball. He is able to do that as a result of two critical factors: footwork and screens.
Just a few short years ago, no one in the league thought Allen would be this healthy midway through his fourth season with the Celtics. His feet had been bothering him for quite a while during his stay in Seattle with the SuperSonics, and he was finally forced to undergo surgery to remove bone spurs in both of his ankles in April of 2007.
When a player undergoes surgery, the area of the body that was operated on doesn’t typically turn into a strength for the athlete. That’s where Allen has proven to be an anomaly.
Allen recalled a day in which the physical therapist he was seeing after the surgery taught him how his running mechanics were affecting his feet and ankles.
“The physical therapist told me why I was having the bone spur development in my ankles. So he was telling me by the way I’m running, by the way I’m slamming (my feet) down,” Allen said of the causes of his recurring ankle pain. “So we actually went on the court and we kind of went – he wanted to see me when I’m coming from the right side, and when I’m coming from the left side, and how I’m turning. And as I was going through that I understood that using my right eye, how much quicker I am from one side to the other.”
That day, as Allen says, has helped him become the balanced and healthy player he is today.
“Once I understood that, shooting became so much easier because I knew where I needed to be quicker,” said allen. “And then to level it off, I did the same thing on both sides so I wouldn’t have any tendencies from one side to the other.”
That was clearly evident in the two huge shots he hit this week for the Celtics.
On Monday night against the Orlando Magic, Allen hit a 3-pointer in the left corner of the court to put Boston ahead 102-101 with 2:15 remaining in the game. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy seemed flabbergasted after the game that Allen was able to get the shot off, let alone hit it.
“That was an unbelievable shot,” said Van Gundy. “We defended the shot and he made a dead run going away from the ball, and to knock that in, that’s an unbelievable shot and that’s why you’ll see him in the Hall of Fame.”
Ray Allen celebrates after drilling a go-ahead 3-pointer against Orlando on Monday, Jan. 17, a shot that Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy called "unbelievable."Brian Babineau/Celtics
Two nights later, against the Pistons, the C’s needed another huge bucket and Allen came up big once again. This time his shot swished in from the right corner of the court, exactly where his coach wanted him to shoot from.
“He was the first option on the play,” Rivers said.
“Ray just makes shots, you know? He’s one of those guys, he can go 0-for-10; you know the one guy that believes he’s going to make it is Ray.”
One of the reasons Rivers was so confident in Allen getting open is that footwork we've already touched on.
“The way he shoots – you know, his footwork – everyone always looks at the form, but I think the key to Ray Allen, his footwork is absolutely tremendous,” said Rivers.
The other reason for Rivers’ confidence in Allen getting the shot off is his team’s ability to set and use great screens.
“Last night, it was one, two, three screens that we wound up setting. If those aren’t set, Ray doesn’t get his shot off,” said Rivers. “Defensively that’s no fun. We always tell our guys you can never get off the body. Well, after the third pick it’s tough not to get off the body.”
Allen has become one of the best in the league at using picks while his other teammates handle the ball. That’s not a talent every player can claim as their, and Rivers understands that Allen is unique in that way.
“You can set picks for some of our guys and they’d never get open. They just don’t know how to use them, how to lean through them,” said Rivers. “Ray just... he’s done it all his life. He knows how to use them.”
In fact, Allen believes he doesn’t even need a great pick to free himself up for a good look. He just needs a body to be standing there, and he’ll do the rest.
“Shaq, when he first got here, he was like, ‘You’ve got to slow down so I can get to the guy,’ “ Allen explained. “I said, ‘Shaq, I just need you to be standing there. I’m just going to use you. You don’t have to worry about getting him (picked) half of the time.’ Because half of the time I’m running off of a screen, Shaq isn’t going to be able to touch him, but just the fact that he has to go around him, it takes him off that path so I can get to my shot.”
You can see the glow in Allen’s eyes when he discusses his shooting techniques and his tricks of the trade to getting open without the ball in his hands. He prides himself on those talents, and he executes them as well as anyone who has ever touched a basketball.
So next time you see Allen fire up a jumper as the clock winds down, enjoy the sight of it splashing through the net. But after you come back down from your personal high, pick up the remote and press the rewind button on the DVR. That’s when you’ll see the real magic happen.