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The Heat Need Duncan Robinson’s 3-Pointers Now More Than Ever

Miami Heat forward Duncan Robinson was among the best 3-point shooters in the NBA this season, but it wasn’t until play started in the bubble that reporters and analysts began referring to him as a “specialist.” With the Heat facing a 1-0 deficit to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals and likely down two of their best players for Game 2 tonight, they’ll need Robinson to provide that elite shooting that has helped them on their playoff run.

In just his second year in the league, Robinson’s 8.3 3-point attempts per game during the regular season ranked 13th behind superstars like James Harden (12.4), Damian Lillard (10.2) and Luka Dončić (8.9). But his 44.6 shooting percentage from deep topped all 12 of the shooters ranked above him. In the postseason, Robinson is shooting 40 percent from deep and averaging 7.1 attempts per game.

What’s been even more impressive is the share of Robinson’s shots that come from downtown — and the Heat’s ability to get him so many good looks.

Entering the NBA Finals, Robinson had attempted 88.7 percent of his shots in the playoffs from behind the 3-point line — the highest rate for a shooter averaging at least seven field-goal attempts per game in the postseason since at least 2013-14.1

In an interview on J.J. Reddick’s on The Old Man and the Three podcast, Robinson said it’s all part of Miami’s game plan that he hoists so many shot attempts from 3-point range. “It’s not like I’m not allowed to take twos,” he said. “But it is by design, in that they want [the] majority of my shots to be threes.”

That was on full display during the Eastern Conference finals. In the six-game series with the Boston Celtics, Robinson didn’t attempt a single 2-point shot until the third quarter of Game 4, which came after nearly 30 attempted three-pointers. He ended the series with 49 attempts from three and just six from two.

During the conference finals, Robinson spent most of his time on the court guarded by Jaylen Brown (24 minutes, 37 seconds) and Marcus Smart (11 minutes, 12 seconds), who are both considered to be among the top perimeter defenders in the league. Smart is a back-to-back All-Defensive First Team selection, and Brown, who allowed the lowest field-goal percentage of any Celtics player to have appeared in more than three games this postseason, received votes for the All-Defensive Team both this season and last season.

The decision by the Celtics coaching staff to match its best defenders on Robinson was an acknowledgment of the threat that his shooting is to opposing teams. “I’m not even taking any twos,” Robinson said about the Celtics defense. “So they’re scheming against me from taking threes. It just becomes how creative I can get to get them off.”

That creativity paid off. Robinson made at least two threes in all but one game against the Celtics and shot 50 percent or better from deep in three of the six games. Robinson opened Game 2 by making four of his six first-quarter 3-point attempts and ended the game with a total of 12 shots taken from behind the arc.

One tool the Heat uses to get so many 3-point shot attempts is the handoff, in which the ball-handler gives the ball to Robinson then sets a screen along the 3-point line. During the regular season, Robinson was the beneficiary of 373 handoffs, the 22nd most in the league; those led to 104 made threes, the most off that play. On handoffs, Robinson is able to rub the screener and force his defender directly into the screen. Then, with his 6-foot-7 frame, he can create separation for an open look at the rim.

Robinson shoots a high percentage on contested shots as well as open shots, so he needs only a sliver of space to be able to get what he would consider a good look at the rim. During the regular season, Robinson shot over 41 percent on contested threes. His numbers have slightly dipped in the postseason, but he is still shooting over 38 percent on those tightly defended threes.

Robinson has struggled in the first game of each series the Heat has played this postseason. Game 1 of the NBA Finals was no different: He was held scoreless on just three shot attempts. All of those were 3-pointers, and two were uncontested, but he wasn’t able to connect. If Robinson can rediscover both his creativity to find good looks and his ability to knock down those threes, he could play a large role in helping the shorthanded Heat tie this series.

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Andres Waters is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He is a data analyst at ESPN.