NBA Finals: Heat's 3-point shooting — especially by undrafted players — is buoying postseason run

Two minutes into the fourth quarter of Game 2 of the NBA Finals, Miami Heat guard Gabe Vincent set a pindown screen for teammate Duncan Robinson, and both defenders — Denver Nuggets reserves Christian Braun and Bruce Brown — followed Robinson, once and now one of the deadliest shooters in the game.

That left Vincent wide open for a 3-pointer that gave the Heat their first lead since the start of the second quarter, part of a 17-4 run to open the fourth with Miami star Jimmy Butler on the bench. Vincent flashed Braun a look that said, The scouting report better not tell you to leave me that open. The Heat would never relinquish the lead, winning 111-108 on the road to draw even a series that felt one-sided before halftime.

"There was miscommunication, game plan breakdowns, personnel breakdowns," Nuggets coach Michael Malone told reporters after the loss. "There were guys like Max Strus — he's 0-for-9 in Game 1, you know he's going to make shots. He got off to a really hot start tonight. Cooled down a little bit. He gets 10 3s off, Gabe Vincent six off, Kevin Love gets six off, Duncan Robinson three off. Those are guys that we are supposed to have a heightened awareness to. As I mentioned after Game 1, the fact that they got 16 wide-open 3s was concerning. They didn't make them, so we got lucky in Game 1. Tonight they made them."

It was not Butler nor All-Star teammate Bam Adebayo but Vincent who led Miami on Sunday, scoring 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including 4-of-6 from deep. The Heat made 17 of their 35 3-point attempts, nearly becoming the first team to shoot 50% or better from distance five times in a single playoff run. The undrafted contingent of Vincent, Robinson, Strus and Caleb Martin finished 11-for-21 from range.

"I would say that old saying we use a lot: People severely overestimate what you can get accomplished in a day, and they grossly underestimate what you can get accomplished in a matter of months, years, when no one is paying attention," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, referencing Vincent. "And he's the epitome of that."

For all the talk about Heat Culture and Miami's toughness, it is their shooting that has them in this position. If you are trying to wrap your head around how the eighth-seeded Heat, who were a few minutes away from elimination in the play-in tournament, are now tied two games into the NBA Finals, look no further than the transformation of Vincent, Robinson and Martin from the regular season to the playoffs at the 3-point arc.

Those three combined to shoot 33.9% on 13 3-point attempts per game during the regular season. Only 23 regulars attempted 4.5 or more 3s a game and shot worse than 34% on them in the regular season. Vincent and Robinson were two of them (as were Heat teammates Kevin Love and Victor Oladipo). This is the stuff of Memphis Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks, whose poor regular-season shooting translated to the playoffs so much so that his team reportedly informed him "he will not be brought back under any circumstances."

Through 20 playoff games, Vincent, Robinson and Martin are now shooting a combined 43% on 16.3 3-point attempts a game. Only two players during the regular season — Al Horford and Luke Kennard — shot better than 44% on at least 4.5 3-point attempts per game. Vincent and Martin are now both hitting that mark for the playoffs. (We should also mention that Robinson shot 44.6% on 8.3 3-point attempts per game in the 2019-20 season, before his accuracy declined each year to 32.8% this season. He had this in him.)

Only eight players have shot 40% or better on at least four 3-point attempts per game through more than one round of the playoffs this season, and the Heat have three of them: Vincent, Martin and Robinson. The others: Devin Booker, Tyrese Maxey, Austin Reaves, Derrick White and Denver's Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Vincent, Martin and Robinson each made four or more 3-pointers a total of 18 times during the 82-game regular season. With Vincent's effort in Game 2, they have now done it 16 times in 20 playoff games. We could go on and on about how insanely ludicrous this level of shotmaking is from three undrafted players.

"I love seeing Max, Gabe, Duncan and Caleb, all of those guys stepping up and shooting the ball with confidence," said Love, who added two 3s in his return to the starting lineup. "It's a beautiful thing to see."

Think of it this way: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson made 151 of their 364 3-point attempts (41.5%) for the Golden State Warriors, arguably the greatest team in NBA history, en route to the 2017 title; Vincent, Martin and Robinson (135-314 3P, 43%) are on pace to surpass them if the Heat do the unthinkable and win rings as a team that finished the regular season with a negative point differential.

All Spoelstra can do to describe his team's 3-point evolution is call it "more intentional."

"And that doesn't guarantee you anything either, but at least you give yourself the best chance," Spoelstra said after his team widened its gap over Denver for the best 3-point percentage in the playoffs. "That the ball is going where it needs to go and everybody understands what we are trying to get accomplished. Then you have to trust. You have to trust each other. So we did get some relief points on cuts and extra passes, ball movement that led to open shots. Yes, it always looks better if the ball goes in, but our guys are competitors. They love those kinds of moments."

Maybe the pressure just was not high enough during the regular season.

Miami Heat guard Gabe Vincent shoots a 3-pointer over Denver Nuggets guard Christian Braun during the second half of Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday in Denver. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Miami Heat guard Gabe Vincent shoots a 3-pointer over Denver Nuggets guard Christian Braun during the second half of Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday in Denver. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

It is difficult to put Miami's hot shooting into proper perspective. Only five teams shot worse than 34.5% from deep this season, and the Heat are the only one to make the playoffs. (The Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Charlotte Hornets — three of the four worst teams — and the Toronto Raptors were the others.) Since team averages eclipsed 25 3-point attempts a game for the first time in 2016-17, seven teams have shot 34.4% or worse from distance and made the playoffs. All but this year's Heat lost in the first round. None but Miami had more than two playoff wins. The Heat need three more to be champions.

The difference between Miami's 3-point shooting per 100 possessions in the regular season (12.3-for-35.7, 34.4%, 27th of 30) and the playoffs (13.9-for-35.5, 39.2%, first of 16) is an average of 4.8 points — or the regular-season gap between the Heat's 25th-rated offense (112.3 points per 100 possessions) and the league's third-best offense, slightly better than that of the Nuggets (116.8 points per 100 possessions).

Miami has been so good from beyond the arc in this postseason that Denver has to respect just about everyone not named Adebayo from distance, and that led to a pair of backbreaking 3-point shooting fouls late in the shot clock — both by Caldwell-Pope — in addition to the 17 triples the Heat made. The first on Strus helped Miami cut into what had grown to a 15-point lead before halftime, and the second on Kyle Lowry stretched the Heat's fourth-quarter lead to 8 points with a little more than five minutes remaining.

"If you're guarding a Duncan Robinson, a Gabe Vincent, a Kevin Love, a Max Strus, you have to guard them at the 4-point line," said Malone. "Talking about lack of discipline, I think we fouled at least three jump shooters, then you have to have the discipline to contest without fouling — getting a hand up, giving them a place to land, whatever it may be. ... The 3-point line is a huge concern coming in. The No. 1 3-point shooting team in these playoffs did a decent job in Game 1 by the numbers, but tonight they buried us."

Call it luck. Call it clutch. Call it something in between. This marksmanship felt unsustainable when the Heat shot 45% from 3 to beat the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and 43.4% against the second-seeded Boston Celtics, but they do not need to sustain it anymore. They just need to find it three more times in this series.