With just over five minutes left in Game 2 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals and the Miami Heat trailing by three, LeBron James threw a wild alley-oop attempt toward Dwyane Wade. The ball sailed 10 feet over Wade, off the backboard and into the hands of Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert. At that point, the win probability models at InPredictable gave the Heat just a 29 percent chance of winning.
Then the Heat turned those probabilities inside out, outscoring the Pacers 15 to 8 in the last five minutes of the game; James and Wade scored all 15 points.
Poof! After a frustrating fourth-quarter performance by Indiana, its home-court advantage was gone. The series is tied 1-1.
Maybe we should have seen this coming; end-of-game struggles have been all too common for the Heat’s opponents in these playoffs. Through Tuesday night, the Heat have outscored their opponents by an average of 14.7 points per 100 possessions in the fourth quarter, the best mark by any team in the playoffs.
Miami Heat Point Differential Per 100 Possessions
The Heat’s differential by quarter was fairly even in the regular season, although there’s a tilt toward the second half. Miami has often gotten off to slow starts in the playoffs, but, more often than not, the Heat have finished by blowing teams apart down the final stretch. If we narrow the focus to those mystical “clutch” moments (less than five minutes left in the game, neither team ahead by more than five points) the Heat’s per 100 possession point differential jumps to a ludicrous +82.1 (of course, that’s in a sample of just 14 minutes, three of which came in Tuesday night’s game).
Seeking matchups to exploit in the fourth quarter has been part of a consistent pattern in the Heat’s rotations. Nine different five-man units have played at least five or more fourth-quarter minutes for the Heat in the playoffs, compared with just four such units in the first quarter. Of those nine units, six have a positive point differential. Only one of those first-quarter units does.
Case in point: In Game 2, guard Norris Cole and big man Chris Anderson gave the Heat a boost of energy and defensive intensity off the bench in the first half. Seeing how effective those two were early in this game, Erik Spoelstra, the Heat’s coach, left them in for almost the entire fourth quarter. The key stretch, when the Heat turned a four-point deficit into a six-point lead, came when Cole and Anderson were playing with James, Wade and Chris Bosh. That lineup had not played a single minute for the Heat in the playoffs before Game 2.
The Pacers have shown they can compete with, and beat, the Heat. But doing that four times in a series will require much more in-game consistency, because on most nights the Heat are building toward something.