In the NBA, when a person thinks “clutch,” they imagine a shooter drilling a late-game jumper, or a game-saving steal. To some extent, those things fit the bill; they are clutch. But the lion’s share of time, being clutch means having great team continuity; it means being able to count on a teammate being in the right place at the right time; it means making the right rotation; it means a timely close out. Being clutch is doing all the little things when you need them most.
Through about 30 games, the Miami Heat are the fourth-worst team in the clutch this year, putting up a minus-18.4 clutch net rating, per NBA.com. NBA.com denotes “clutch” as a game within five points in the last five minutes. When the game get’s even tighter, things get even worse for the Heatles. When the game is within four points in the last four minutes, Miami plummets to last in net rating—a putrid minus-31.7 points per 100 possession.
It’s not a real shocker that Miami isn’t executing on the offensive end when it matters most, but it is surprising that they’re giving up 109.9 points per 100 possessions on the defensive end.
Injuries have undoubtedly played a big part in the Heat’s inability to close games. It’s not just the injuries themselves that are now giving the Heat trouble—it’s the time the players lost sitting on the bench, rehabbing injuries. It takes time to get a team to “hum”; time the Heat have not been afforded. When there are five minutes left in a game, when everyone is watching, Miami’s lack of continuity is easy to see—and expose.
Playing NBA defense is like balancing spinning plates. If you have to adjust to compensate for one tilting plate, you have to have to counter compensate for all the rest of them, too. For every action there has to be a reaction; which, when’s there several actions in one possession, is hard to do. This is where the Heat has most of their troubles in the clutch.
The Heat haven’t lost all of their close games because they don’t have a guy who can make a contested 15-footer, they’ve lost because they don’t have the synergy needed to stop opposing teams when it matters most.
Down the stretch, one of the huge things Miami’s roster has trouble with is switching. Firstly, it’s something they don’t do enough; secondly, they can’t keep it together when they do switch. (The first part of that sentence kind of explains the second part of it.) Towards the end of games, when the tempo slows down, and an emphasis is put on half-court offense, maintaining the tightrope walk of defensive reactions is major.
The first defensive response is always going to be the easiest. Usually, it’s in the form of switching, or hedging and recovering, on pick-and-roll defense. In this sequence, both players guarding the ball-handler and roll-man will disengage with their man and re-engage with each other’s man (hopefully)—that’s a switch. Hedging and recovering is harder; it’s staying in front of your opponent just long enough so that your teammate can catch up, then, seamlessly jumping back to your original defensive assignment. The Heat can’t hedge and recover.
Successfully completing this partner-switching ballroom dance can halt an offense and force them to reset, or, even better, kill a possession. Good offenses won’t stop there, though; they’ll continue swinging the ball, finding backdoor cutters as a second action to the defense’s reaction. This is where the Heat wilt.
Miami is often a half-step late closing out on the swing pass to the corner, and they can occasionally fall asleep on a slippery cutter’s slash to the rim, and more. Losing a half-step matters. Once Miami is a half-step behind, it can only take one more screen or swing pass to push them into a full-fledged defensive collapse. And in the final minutes of a game, those collapses can put an entire game’s worth of effort in jeopardy.
At this point, it’s too much of a team-wide problem to point out individuals, but one of the most notable offenders is Rodney McGruder. Fair or not, the swingman has often gotten stuck with the opposition's best player—who often is bigger than the 6-foot-4 McGruder. McGruder likes to ball watch, which results in him getting back-cut by heady wings. He also doesn’t realize when and when not to switch, things that can compromise a defense by leaving someone uncovered. This is not mutually exclusive of McGruder.
The Wall of Whiteside, courtesy of Hassan Whiteside, was what helped the Heat’s defense down the stretch, last year. By the time the fourth quarter came around last season, Whiteside had spiked away enough floaters and layups to deter opposing rim-runners. Although Whiteside is having a fantastic statistical season, he’s been noticeably less block-happy in 2016-17. His increased role has required him to stay on the court for longer stretches, so this could be a result of trying to reduce the shooting fouls Whiteside has customarily been known to commit.
Last year, Whiteside had accrued 112 blocks by Christmas in 28 games (!), according to NBA.com. This season, he has racked up 73 blocks—34-percent less than last year—in that same time frame, and he’s played three more games.
It’s not just Whiteside’s block totals that have dipped either; he rotates to the rim less, too. In previous seasons, rotating to the weak side and sending away a some “weak stuff” was his trademark. The big fella is still tied for No. 3 in blocks per game, so it’s not like he’s lost his touch—but it raises questions: Is Whiteside’s expanded role diminishing him on defense, especially at the end of games?
In 2016-17, Whiteside’s minutes per game has increased from 29.1 to 34, and his usage rate is up, too, per NBA.com. From trying to create more offense for himself to just running up and down the court for five more minutes a game, it wouldn’t be surprising if some of his defensive energy was being displaced, especially late in-game.
Last year, in fourth quarters, Whiteside averaged nearly a block per quarter; and this year he is doing almost half that. This could be due to opposing teams playing stretch-centers to counteract what Whiteside does best (protect the rim), which would make sense. As the league progresses and more emphasis is put on the 3-point shot, Whiteside is being asked to leave the paint and guard big men that can shoot, even closing out to the 3-point arc—a world away from the rim—where the Wall of Whiteside stands. All of this and his increased role could be contributing to the decrease in his defensive intensity. You don’t need a scour over game film to see Whiteside huffing and puffing, night to night. He’s playing more than he’s used to, and he still needs to get used to it.
This Miami Heat squad isn’t exactly great at anything yet. They don’t have an identity. Through time, synergy may blossom, but they are far from a fluid unit—and that is made most evident at the end of games.