LEBRON JAMES 40.6%3-point shooting
This is an article from the May 13, 2013 issue
MARIO CHALMERS 40.9%3-point shooting
MIKE MILLER 41.7%3-point shooting
UDONIS HASLEM Screens, swings ball, dives to the basket
CHRIS BOSH 52.2%16 feet to 3-point line
There are men in the basketball world who make things happen, players such as LeBron James and Tony Parker who puncture defenses and rip them apart from the inside. Then there are those who wait for things to happen, players whose fate is determined by forces outside their control—hoping for their moment, not knowing if it will come. This story is about such men, the immobile, the patient, the accidental heroes. The Floor Spacers.
When Heat forward Mike Miller caught the ball in the right corner last June, nine minutes into Game 5 of the NBA Finals, he didn't have time to think. He couldn't dwell on the fact that he hadn't made any of his three three-pointers as Miami had taken a 3--1 lead, or that he had played just 21 minutes and was only in the game because of Dwyane Wade's foul trouble—"Just get us to the quarter," coach Erik Spoelstra had told Miller moments earlier. Nor could Miller be distracted by the bulging disk in his back, which numbed his right leg and was so painful it required three teammates to pull him up from his spot lying on the baseline before checking in (a sight that caused Spoelstra to momentarily second-guess his decision). He likewise couldn't acknowledge his sore right (shooting) thumb, his bad left ankle or the unnerving fact that he'd barely touched a ball all day, forgoing his morning and pregame shooting drills. Most of all, Miller couldn't pause to consider whether, at 32, these could be the final minutes of his NBA career.
All he could do was flex his stiff legs and fill the only role left to him. Once a dynamic player, the 2001 NBA Rookie of the Year and '06 Sixth Man Award winner, a gifted passer and high-flying leaper, the 6'8" Miller was now nothing more than a Spacer. His job: Stretch the Thunder's defense so it couldn't collapse on James and Wade as they attacked the basket. He needed to be a viable threat, someone Oklahoma City feared leaving open. As a lifetime 40.6% three-point shooter—one who sank 97 out of 100 threes during a 2010 workout with Miami—Miller was more than qualified for the job. At least when healthy.
Now, after watching the D cheat toward the left side, Miller found himself open after two swing passes. So he did what he had done hundreds of thousands of times, from his grade school days in Mitchell, S.D., to his two years at Florida to the NBA: concentrate on keeping his release high and let it fly. He watched the spin and trajectory of the ball. Instantly, he knew it was going in.
The second three came 63 seconds later, when Miller came off a down screen and fired from the right wing. Schwick went the amplified net. To his great surprise and relief, nothing ached. Miller could feel the old juices returning. Please don't take me out, he thought as he ran back downcourt. At the next timeout, Spoelstra asked if he was good to go; Miller nodded. And with that, Miller began, as he says, "hunting shots." He curled above the key to the top of the left wing. Schwick. He traced the three-point arc all the way from right corner to left and used a back screen from center Chris Bosh. Schwick. Around him, 20,000 white-clad, overly tan fans at AmericanAirlines Arena hollered and high-fived, spilling their expensive beers on their expensive linen pants.
Four more times in the second half Miller squared up. Each time the OKC defenders had to make a decision: Leave James or Wade or Bosh, or play the odds that Miller would cool off. So James Harden half-doubled LeBron in the post rather than run out on Miller, and Kevin Durant was late to contest, as was Derek Fisher. Schwick, schwick, schwick. ABC broadcaster Mike Breen shouted what the Thunder was fast discovering: "Mike Miller on fire!"
When it was over, Miller had made 7 of 8 threes, and the Heat had seized the championship with a 121--106 win. "To this day, I don't know how he gave us those 23 minutes," says Spoelstra. Considering the stakes, the accuracy and the effect his shots had on the game and the series, Miller's was the greatest three-point shooting performance in playoff history—and the most improbable. For one night he had lived out the fantasy of every 11-year-old who has heaved a scuffed Spalding at a backyard rim. "It was one of those feelings you hope to get again," Miller says, "but you never know if you will."
Now it is late April, and Miller and his Heat teammates are in Milwaukee, up 2--0 on the Bucks in their first-round series. To walk through the cramped Miami locker room, full of large men wearing large headphones, is to witness the NBA version of a comically overstocked arsenal. A full five of the 12 active players are Spacers: Miller, forward Rashard Lewis (a career 38.8% three-point shooter), forward Shane Battier (38.7%), forward James Jones (39.9%) and, of course, guard Ray Allen (40.1%). Then there are the competent, but more versatile, shooters, including James (40.6% this season), point guard Mario Chalmers (40.9% this year) and "center" Chris Bosh (a lethal enough midrange shooter to keep defenses honest). Such is the Miami firepower that Miller had played only two minutes against the Bucks, even though he says rigorous rehab over the last nine months has left him feeling "the best I've felt in five years."
The Heat's roster of gunners can be seen as an embarrassment of riches, one enabled by the willingness of veteran players to sign for modest sums in hopes of winning a title, but it is also a sign of the times. The NBA has been a shooter's league for a while now, but never as much as it is today: a record 39.9 threes were launched per game this season, and the Knicks set a league mark by hoisting 2,371, or more than a third of their shots. There is a whole class of players, Floor Spacers such as New York forward Steve Novak, San Antonio guard Danny Green and Hawks forward Kyle Korver, who would be out of a job if it weren't for the three-point line—not to be confused with dynamic, off-the-dribble three-point marksmen like Durant and Warriors point guard Stephen Curry (page 52).
Once upon a time, only teams with dominant centers used multiple wing shooters. Now almost every team does. The Knicks array spot-up guys around forward Carmelo Anthony, the league's leading scorer. The Spurs use Green as a corner threat the way they once used Bruce Bowen. When Russell Westbrook was lost to a knee injury after Game 3 against the Rockets, the Thunder simply stationed shooters Fisher, Kevin Martin, Thabo Sefolosha and Reggie Jackson behind the arc, where they waited for Durant to kick them the ball after breaking down the defense. It worked, and Oklahoma City got past a Houston team that made use of Spacers like Chandler Parsons and Carlos Delfino.
No team goes as far as the Heat, though. Last year Miami spread the floor with four players behind the three-point line and one roll guy at the elbow, a strategy Spoelstra implemented after picking the brain of Oregon football coach Chip Kelly, who preaches spreading the field. This year Spoelstra has gone a step further, running a primary offense called Five in which the entire team sets up on the perimeter to create maximum driving space for James and Wade. In this iteration the only starter who doesn't shoot long jumpers is power forward Udonis Haslem, who instead swings the ball, screens away or dives to the basket. When Haslem comes out, usually midway through the first quarter, in comes Battier, allowing the Heat to employ five true perimeter players.
What makes Miami's offense even more unusual is that in the past, floor-spacing teams would usually keep one big man inside, on the weakside block, in what's known as "the punching spot" or, more aptly, "the dunking spot." When a player such as James drove, that big would slide to the basket, ready to catch a pass and jam it home if his defender left him to double. The Heat wanted to eliminate that help entirely. So now opponents face a difficult choice. "What everybody wants to do is put their best defender on LeBron and try to help as little as possible," says one scout. "Because if you have to help, they have so many shooters. Even if you rotate well once or twice or three times, the ball is going to find a shooter." The scout pauses. "You just gotta hope and pray."
The Thunder prefers to view defending the Heat as strategy, not an act of supplication. OKC coach Scott Brooks says the key is to match up in transition and be "on point every possession," because "if you're not, you're just chasing the ball around, and then they shoot 40 percent and you get frustrated and don't do your job." Spacers, Brooks emphasizes, are only as dangerous as the players who feed them: "If you wanted to focus and take the three-point shooter out of the game, you can do that. It's not a hard thing to do. But what makes those three-point shooters so valuable is the [other] guys who can break you down and collapse you, and then [the Spacers] get open shots."
Even when teams like the Thunder do match up, it often doesn't matter, as it didn't with Miller in Game 5. A shooting performance like that—not 40% but 88%—is the ultimate exploder of game plans. "There were times we played good defense, rotated, and on the next pass he was able to get a shot and knock it down," says Fisher, who was the help defender on several of Miller's makes. "It wasn't that we forgot about him or even messed up, but when you're playing against the best teams and they're executing offensively, sometimes the best defense can't quite get there every time."
These days, it's taken for granted that every team has deadeye Floor Spacers. It's part of the modern, high-efficiency offense, which values layups and corner three-pointers above all. Once upon a time, though, players found themselves thrust into the role without warning.
Remember Matt Maloney? Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp certainly do. Perhaps no Spacer has ever been quite as green and put under as much pressure.
The year was 1997, and the Seattle SuperSonics' defensive strategy in the conference semifinals was simple. Their opponent, the Rockets, had three Hall of Famers in Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler, as well as a veteran wing in Mario Elie. Houston's other starter was Maloney, an undrafted rookie point guard from Penn who had spent the previous season with the Grand Rapids Mackers in the CBA. Which one would you leave open?
Through the first three games, Seattle often looked as if its strategy was to pretend Maloney wasn't even on the court. The results were mixed. In the two games the Rockets won, Maloney shot well (9 of 16 on threes). In their loss, he went 1 for 7 from deep. At the start of Game 4, the pivotal game in the series, Maloney looked hesitant, missing a couple of jumpers. Knowing he needed to be aggressive, Maloney kept firing. "That's the growth of a team, the growth of a rookie," a shocked Bill Walton said on the air. "The confidence to come right back after he bricks one. Usually you say, 'We're never coming your way again, kid!'"
The truth was, Houston had no choice but to keep coming back to the kid, so quick and ferocious were the double teams on its star players. For Maloney, the night ended in fairy-tale fashion. With less than a minute remaining in overtime, he shot-faked Hersey Hawkins into the air, took a dribble and knocked down a dagger to seal the win. It was his eighth three-pointer of the game (in 13 attempts), tying him for the second-most makes in NBA playoff history. (Four players have hit nine, including Allen twice.) "The real hero of this afternoon," said Steve Jones on NBC, "is Matt Maloney."
Hero status only lasts so long, though. The Rockets went on to take the series in seven, advancing to the conference finals that year—the high point of Maloney's six-year career. Now he lives in Houston, where fans still come up to him on the street wanting to talk about those playoffs. A humble, understated man, he sums up his performance thusly: "When the ball came back to me, I had to be ready."
Dan Majerle of the Suns had a similar day in 1993, when he sank eight threes in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, a few of them launched from roughly 30 feet while spreading the floor for Charles Barkley. "You get like that, and there really isn't a bad shot," says Majerle, now the coach at Grand Canyon University. These days Majerle sees it from the other side, and he fears the spot-up shooter who starts feeling it. "You have certain defensive rules," he says. "You never want to give a layup. But there comes a point where a guy gets so hot that it goes against all your coaching philosophy. So you bring your guys to the sideline and say, 'Don't sink, don't fill. Stay in his shorts.' It's hard. You've been drilling a guy all year long, and here you're telling them to stop doing everything you've taught them." All because of the Spacer.
Among Spacers, there's a mutual appreciation for those who perform under pressure. Even though Fisher was on the losing end, he respects Miller's performance. "It's an example of a guy having mental toughness, and that's hard to measure," says the 38-year-old Fisher, who once hit 6 of 7 threes in a conference finals game for the Lakers. "A lot of people would have given up on themselves. He hung in there and his teammates trusted him and his coaches trusted him and he had one of the most special moments in NBA Finals history."
There is, of course, a flip side to all this, and it's a dark one. It's great to go 7 of 8 on threes, but what if you go 0 for 7? The Spacers know that in ways they are like field goal kickers, living in a land of limited, high-pressure opportunities. "That's the hardest thing, and people not in that situation never understand it," says Miller. "You may play 10 minutes or 30 minutes, but what dictates it is making shots. You might get one shot and you might get nine shots. And that's the hardest part of our job."
Steve Kerr, one of the first guys to make a living as a playoff shotmaker, had a unique solution for this. Before games, he would write fi on the toes of his shoes to remind himself that the first time he caught the ball he should think not about the situation, or the pressure, or however many shots he missed the last game. All he should think is "F--- it" and let it fly. (Kerr has become an unwitting inspiration of sorts after this anecdote was featured in a book. Now a TV analyst, he worked a college game last fall, and Syracuse assistant Gerry McNamara came up to him, excited, and pointed to the shoes of three of the team's players, where, in Sharpie, fi was scrawled. "So apparently my legacy," says Kerr with a smile, "is for writing profanity on my clothing.")
Back in Milwaukee, the Heat take the floor for warmups before Game 3 against the Bucks. With ball boys feeding them, the Spacers take up position on the right wing. At one point they are arrayed in an arced lineup, only a foot or two away from each other: Miller and Lewis and Battier and Allen, each with hand outstretched for a ball. Then, up their arms go, launching a fusillade of threes. Schwick. Schwick. Schwick. Clank. (That would be Lewis.)
Half an hour later the game begins, and Miami starts slowly. Then Allen comes in. The effect is immediate. Not only do the Heat players look for him, but the defense tilts toward his side. As Battier, a 43.0% three-point shooter this season, explains, it's Allen's reputation that is so important. "That's probably his biggest strength," Battier says. "Defenders cheat a little more, because it's Ray Allen sitting out there. Those two feet that the defense might cheat, and try to close out to Ray, is the difference between LeBron and D Wade getting to the rack or not." (Indeed, even among Spacers there is a hierarchy; some teams use a rating system of green, yellow and red for deciding whether to leave them or not.)
On this night the Bucks don't cheat enough, and Allen knocks down a pair of threes, then three more. Midway through the second half, in what turns into an easy 104--91 Heat win, he breaks Reggie Miller's playoff record for career three-pointers, and he goes on to finish 5 of 8 from behind the arc. In his postgame press conference, he gives a shout-out to his peers. "I look down the bench and I see Rashard Lewis ... Mike Miller ... James Jones," says Allen. "We've all made sacrifices."
On this night the shout-out is welcome, as those three never made it into the game. To the outsider it can seem a peculiar strategic roster move—couldn't the Heat benefit more from another activity guy on the inside than one more shooter?—but who knows what is to come. "They haven't had to use Miller and Jones and Lewis yet," says the scout. "But I guarantee you, through 16 wins those guys will come in and get some use and make a difference. Even if it's only for one series, or one game. That's why they're there."
Why they're there. After the game, Miller showers and then pulls on a long-sleeved gray T-shirt, dark pants and hightops. Nearby sit James and Wade—the reasons Miller is so valuable to Miami. He'd hoped to play, but he understands. "Some nights you're needed, some nights you're not," he says.
Then Miller heads out into the darkness, to the waiting bus. In the days and weeks to come, as the Heat sweep the Bucks and take on the Bulls, he'll prepare for every game the same way. He'll go through the same visualization process, the same warmup routine and the same shooting drills. He'll sit on the bench and gently tap his feet, trying to stay loose. He knows his opportunity might come again, or it might go to someone else. He may fail, or he may succeed. The only thing he can control is whether he makes or misses the shot.
All he can do is be ready.
For more from Chris Ballard on Stephen Curry, plus complete up-to-the-minute NBA playoff coverage, go to SI.com/mag
And then there's Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, who doesn't need anyone's help to find room to get off a shot
For anyone else, they would have been bad shots. Really bad shots.
Steph Curry is different, though. During the Warriors' six-game first-round victory over the Nuggets, the 6'3" point guard appeared to be engaged in one very long, extremely thorough heat check. He fired step-back jumpers, pull-up jumpers, one-foot running jumpers, step-into-it 31-foot jumpers, one-dribble-reposition jumpers, over-the-double-team jumpers and at least half a dozen holy-hell-did-he-just-shoot-that? jumpers. And those are the ones he made. By my count, of the 51 baskets Curry hit in the series, 41 came off the dribble.
If the Mike Millers and Danny Greens of the NBA are Floor Spacers, sentries arrayed around the arc to create room for their team's stars to operate, Curry is a different breed. He creates his own space, but he also thrives in the absence of it. Against Denver he saw constant double teams designed to make someone else—anyone else—on Golden State shoot. His father, Dell, once an NBA sharpshooter himself, called Steph during the series and told him to be patient but attack hard when the opportunity arose. His coach, Mark Jackson, reminded him during a Game 6 timeout that he was the best player on the floor and needed to keep firing. "I wasn't worried," Curry said last Saturday, as the team prepared to board its flight to San Antonio for the second round. "But it was a message I needed to hear."
So Curry adapted by shooting more quickly, and from even more unlikely angles. He tried to get into a rhythm by taking pull-up threes—"one of my strengths all season"—before the defense could set. Most of all, he trusted his jumper, the one he honed playing backyard games in Charlotte, first against Dell and then against his younger brother, Duke guard Seth. The same jumper that, ironically, used to be easy to block because Steph heaved it from down by his hip. (Dell forced him to reconstruct his form after his sophomore year at Charlotte Christian High, bringing the ball up over his head.)
The resulting shots, lifted from a fever-dream game of 21, are the type teams generally encourage opponents to take. (Every off-balance Brandon Jennings three, for example, is a little gift to defenses.) For Curry they are part of his standard repertoire. Consider: Most elite shooters need help to score. Curry's backcourt mate Klay Thompson, a traditional Spacer, was assisted on 83.3% of his baskets this year. For Knicks forward Steve Novak, it was more than 90%. Even Kevin Durant, another space-creating shooter, was assisted on over half. Curry? He scored 59.1% of his buckets on his own this season. "It's ridiculous the types of shots he makes in games," says Jarret Jack, the Warriors' sixth man. "And each time he hits one, it only helps the rest of us."
Indeed. Because Curry is the primary ballhandler—he averaged 9.3 assists against the Nuggets—Golden State can essentially use him to create for other Spacers. For to leave Curry open behind the line, unattended and feet set, is to invite death-by-three-ball. "Oh, I'd love to be one of those spacer guys," Curry says. A good approximation of how this might look is a drill the Warriors guards do, in which they take threes at various spots around the arc until they miss two in a row. Curry's high? Seventy-six.