Longtime fans know the game well. On February 22, 1996, the Miami HEAT traded for Tim Hardaway. On February 23, neither Hardaway nor his trade-mate Chris Gatling was available to play. In town that day? The 48-6 Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan.
What happened that night is the stuff of legend. Behind Rex Chapman’s 9-of-10 shooting from three – in an era where that many attempts were hardly commonplace – Miami shot 15-of-23 from deep and toppled the future champions, and eventual owners of the single-season wins record, with effectively a seven-man rotation.
In beating the defending-champion Milwaukee Bucks, 113-104, Wednesday night without Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and Markieff Morris, Miami has another improbable victory to add to the annals of the franchise’s many shorthanded tales.
On paper it isn’t surprising that Miami won. The HEAT hit a franchise-high-tying 22 threes ("We were just shooting them thangs tonight," Kyle Lowry said) and the Bucks shot just 12-of-39 (30.8 percent) from deep. Because of how Erik Spoelstra asks his team to defend, a seal-off-the-paint style that they take to an even greater extreme against the downhill exploits of Giannis Antetokounmpo, anytime Miami enjoys that much of a disparity from three-point land in this matchup they typically win. With Adebayo and Butler available, that would have been the first thing pointed to in the box score.
But this wasn’t about what happened. The HEAT have beaten Milwaukee before, and they’ve defended Antetokounmpo (4-of-13, 15 points) as well as any team in the league. No, this was about the who and the how.
Caleb Martin isn’t your typical undrafted HEAT project. He isn’t a player they brought to Summer League, who earned an invite to training camp, who spent time developing in Sioux Falls before eventually being offered a two-way deal. Martin has already done all that. He signed a 10-day contract with the Charlotte Hornets – where he played alongside his twin brother, Cody – played his way into a two-way and finally a full contract with eight, yes eight, trips to the G-League and back. He was having the journey so many HEAT players – Rodney McGruder, Tyler Johnson and Duncan Robinson among them – have had, he was just doing it somewhere else.
Then Charlotte waived him. The HEAT took interest and Martin became the rare player with regular NBA experience to take another two-way contract. That decision appears to be paying off in spades for both parties as he’s steadily impressed, playing 20 minutes a night since Halloween in a clear show of growing faith from Spoelstra.
“How could you not like Caleb Martin? The dude just plays extremely hard, no matter what the circumstances. Every night he’s locked in,” Max Strus said.
“How do you not want a guy on your team like that?”
Wednesday was Martin’s pièce de resistance, not just of his season but perhaps his entire career to date. Inserted into the starting lineup in place of the injured Jimmy Butler, Martin scored a career-high 28 points via a career-high six threes. Seventeen of those points came in the first half of what initially appeared to be a rerun of a movie we’ve all seen before, when it seemed as though the HEAT would hang around through the early going only to lose steam offensively as the veteran Bucks pulled away.
“Shoutout to Caleb Martin who held it down in the first half,” Kyle Lowry said. “If he didn’t play [like that] in the first half, we would have gotten blown out.”
Martin wasn’t supposed to be a shooter, though you wouldn’t know it after this performance. After a hot start in a short stint his first year in Charlotte, he shot just 24.8 percent from three on 125 attempts last year. For an NBA wing, that’s just about an unplayable number for all but the most elite of elite defenders. And clearly that was his reputation, as plenty of teams have opted to short their rotations his direction and, put plainly, let him shoot. Knowing the opportunities were going to come against Milwaukee, which the previous weekend had given the 31.1 percent shooter plenty of space, Martin had other ideas.
“A lot of it is just confidence, man,” Martin said. “I just didn’t play with a lot of confidence last year for some reason and a lot of that was on me, I was in my own head. I feel a sense of comfortability here and confidence from my coaching staff and my peers. Just the fact that they are telling me to shoot the ball and want me to shot the ball and want me to be great and want be to be a good shooter and they recognize that I can be a consistent shooter. That’s just going to be what I continue to work towards.
“I put a lot of work in, I shoot as much as anybody over the summer so I feel I’m just as deserving to get them up as anybody else. When the opportunity comes, it just feels good that guys want me to take the opportunity.”
While Martin made the strongest, and perhaps most surprising, impression, he was only part of a group of young, unheralded players who cinched the victory. With Lowry and P.J. Tucker providing veteran stability, Spoelstra rode with both Max Strus (16 points and four threes all in the fourth quarter) and KZ Okpala (playing smallball four with a clutch three in the closing minutes) for the entirety of the final period. Strus had played just six minutes in Miami’s loss to Memphis earlier in the week. Okpala had played just 71 minutes all season.
“It’s a day-by-day process,” Tucker said of the young players. “You got to fall in love with the struggle. Which sounds stupid and it sounds crazy, but that’s going to push you to get better. You get these opportunities never. I’m No. 17 because I played 17 games my rookie year. I never played. You got an opportunity to play big minutes in big games and have a big role. We need you. You got to step up. It’s a lot of responsibility, it’s tough. But that’s what you’re here for and you have to fall in love with that process. You got to. It’s part of it.”
As much as the young players impressed on a night when some of the more seasoned younger players struggled, and as much as the team needed Lowry’s second-half shotmaking (4-of-8 from three, 18 points after the break), the team flat out doesn’t win this game without Tucker’s effort on Antetokounmpo.
Part of why HEAT-Bucks matchups have been so fascinating over the past three seasons, with each side earning a one-sided postseason series victory, is that Miami has such a unique blend of personnel and scheme for the two-time Most Valuable Player. Bam Adebayo stays in front with his speed and quickness, his teammates bring help when the ball is on the floor and it’s all added up to some of the worst games in Antetokounmpo’s career.
Without Adebayo, Spoelstra turned to Tucker, the former teammate of Antetokounmpo. A full-time center at times during his stretch with the Houston Rockets, for whatever reason Miami’s smallball lineups with Tucker in the middle just hadn’t help up defensively through limited usage early on. That changed against Milwaukee as those lineups finished plus-11 with Tucker captaining the ship throughout, standing up Antetokounmpo on attempted drive-after-drive while providing offensive stability playing Adebayo’s playmaking role with a career-high-tying eight assists. For the season, Anteokounmpo averages 16.9 drives per 100 possessions. Against Miami, that number fell to 5.8. The Bucks average 1.06 points-per-possession when Antetokounmpo gets a touch. On Wednesday that number was 0.73.
“That’s what he does every night,” Lowry said. “He’s one of the best defenders in the league. He should make all-defensive team every single season. Personally I think he should. Even when he wasn’t my teammate, I always thought he should. He takes on the challenge every single night. He went out there and he did his job and he did it at a high level.”
Tucker noted that Spoelstra brought a particular focus into the team’s film sessions and meetings in the day they had between games to prepare – a day they needed given how little their schedule has allowed for practice time. There was a playoff approach to the game and it showed in the attention to defensive detail across the board. Miami may have enjoyed one heck of an outlier shooting performance, but they made sure that shooting mattered by doing the work on the other end.
Was it actually a playoff game? Hardly. The HEAT simply won’t be playing this same rotation should these teams meet once again in April or May. Not with Adebayo and Butler back. And that’s more than fine. Not every game has to impact the playoff chase or give you proper film to support a looming postseason matchup or be a referendum on your status as a contender. Sometimes, it’s just about one night.
“This is where we are right now,” Spoelstra said. “This is temporary, this is not a full-season deal. We just have to wrap our minds around that it’s all hands-on deck and each game is its own journey.”
Some games can just be special on their own. This one certainly was, and it’s immediately a memory that should linger in the minds of many.