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Coup's Notebook Vol. 18: A Special Zone For Kevin Durant, The Blind Spot And Deck Double, Bam Adebayo Is A Glitch, Tyler Herro Is Adding And The HEAT’s Rare Milwaukee Numbers

The HEAT are 43-22, No. 1 in the Eastern Conference with a three-game lead on No. 2 and a Net Rating of plus-4.9, which ranks No. 5 in the league. They’ve beaten Chicago, Brooklyn and Philadelphia all in the past week – with significant absences on both sides in each game – and are about to play 10 of their next 11 at home (League Pass). Here’s what we’ve been noting and noticing.

SHOP

BOX-AND-DURANT, EXCEPT NOT

It’s been a while since we’ve seen our old friend the zone. Since that shorthanded December 15 game when the HEAT used 47 zone possessions to flummox the Philadelphia 76ers, the HEAT only used zone for more than 20 possessions once (in a 30-point loss to Boston) headed into Thursday’s matchup with Brooklyn.

But the moment you think Erik Spoelstra has gone away from something is the exact moment when he’ll go back to it. A back-to-back in Brooklyn, with Kevin Durant getting just about anything he wanted in his first game back from a knee injury, was that moment. Miami used zone on 34 possessions, second most this season behind that 76ers game, and allowed 0.97 points per possessions. Better yet, Brooklyn’s points-per-possession whenever Durant touched the ball shrunk from 1.57 in the first half, to 0.54 in the second – where most of the zone possessions were concentrated.

“Spo tricked us with the zone,” Goran Dragic told reporters after the game.

Typically the HEAT run a drop-back press, meant to slow an opponent down into a shorter shot clock, with Gabe Vincent and Caleb Martin at the tip of the spear. Once they’re in the halfcourt, they form a 2-3 zone, occasionally shifting into a 1-3-1 depending on if the opponent has someone who can punish you in the middle of the floor. If you’ve seen a zone before, you’ve seen the broadstrokes of what they do. It’s easy enough to recognize. What they did with Durant was a little different. Instead of just having Vincent or Martin drop to the nail to prevent an easy catch, they had whoever started nearest to Durant follow him even if it meant one of the backline wings breaking the shape of the zone – at least until a handoff could be made and that player could retreat to his original defensive area.

Watch Durant on these possessions and how the zone morphs around him. It’s not quite a box-and-one because there isn’t a dedicated defender hounding Durant, but the principles are similar. Keep a body on the most dangerous player no matter what, zone everyone else. Over the course of a possession, it’s a little bit like watching a defensive formation on a soccer pitch try to maintain shape while accounting for forward runs.

The Box-And-Durant

“The thing you can’t overreact to with a player like Durant is he makes the difficult and challenging ones look easy,” Spoelstra said. “He’s going to get a great, high-percentage look any time he touches the ball, because of his size and skill level.

If he gets to his spots, even with the best defenders, there’s not a whole lot you can do.”

“It was fun to get back to that and get those reps in and figure it back out,” added Martin. “I kind of bothered him in terms of him getting to his spots so easily. He always would see a crowd.”

The common denominator between those two quotes is that both coach and player brought up Durant’s ability to get to his spots. Because he can rise up and comfortably shoot over the top of anyone – Miami’s entire base defense wants to keep teams out of the paint and make you shoot over the top, and Durant might be the best over-the-top shooter we’ve ever seen – so you have to do the work before the catch and make those spots uncomfortable.

Brooklyn eventually found a bit of a comfort level against the zone, and it’ll be tougher in a postseason series with Kyrie Irving’s ability to attack weak spots coupled with Ben Simmons’ skip passing, but their offense stalled out for nearly the entire third – going three straight minutes without a made shots – and that was the difference in an impressive, shorthanded win.

THE BLIND SPOT AND THE DECK DOUBLE

If you’ve been following Erik Spoelstra’s career for long enough, you know the blueprint. When the other team relies heavily on a single player to carry both a bulk of usage (which doesn’t including passing) and playmaking (which obviously includes passing), then Spoelstra will do what it takes to make them uncomfortable with the ball. Against a guard like Trae Young, that has historically meant a blitz in the pick-and-roll. Against a big wing like Luke Doncic, timely doubles. Against whatever Giannis Antetokounmpo is, bringing up to three players in front of him to keep him out of the paint.

And against the rare, true backdown-capable center, they front the post when there’s a size mismatch and bring double-teams either from the blind spot on the catch or when the center decks the ball – the latter of which forces a pickup and anchors that center to his spot. Oftentimes that double is coming from the back shoulder, where the center can’t see it coming. Other times, it’s right in their face. Here’s Miami doing it to Nikola Vucevic…

Embiid Doubles

And here’s them doing it to Joel Embiid.

The Bam Matrix

This one is pretty self-explanatory. You have an element of surprise even if they’re expecting it because they can never know exactly when to expect it. Make them think, make them process. Other teams do this, too, but Miami generally does it with precise timing and spacing – which is why they allow 0.81 points per possession on post doubles. The primary defender has to maintain containment, the helper does his best not to foul and the other three on the floor zone the passing lanes. Teams that prepare for this can use it against you just like any two-on-the-ball situation, but it’s tough to do that in the regular season.

The answer, then, is to go away from the post even with those enticing switch mismatches staring you in the face. The Bulls went away from Vucevic in the post entirely, using him mostly as a pick-and-pop spacer for their attacking wings. Doc Rivers made the call to get Embiid the ball at the elbow instead of the extended block, where Embiid could face up and see where the defense was at all times. For Chicago, it didn’t work. For Philadelphia, it worked for a stretch as they spammed that same elbow touch over and over in the third quarter, but eventually a dismal shooting night ruined any offensive momentum the 76ers were able to generate. Just another small thing to keep in mind if the right postseason matchup comes along, something that will no doubt show up on the playoff scout.

I’M NOT SURE YOU’RE ALLOWED TO DO THAT

After beating the New York Knicks last week, a game which featured Bam Adebayo make basketball a nightmare for Julius Randle without even being his primary defender, Erik Spoelstra had this to say about his All-World center’s defense:

“He’s like The Matrix. He can be in two, three places at once.”

We already used that quote in last week’s notebook, but dropping it again because two games later Adebayo made a defensive play that perfectly fit that description. A play that deserves special recognition for how rare it is, despite how easy Adebayo’s athleticism makes it look.

Vucevic Doubles

Basketball players aren’t supposed to be able to do that. The old saying to promote ball movement is that the pass is faster than the man, and it’s a saying for good reason. It’s usually true. You aren’t supposed to be able to recover to the ball in the air if you started where the ball started. But Bam is a glitch, one of maybe a small handful of players, at most, who can do this. We saw one of the others make a similar play in last season’s NBA Finals.

We wouldn’t recommend trying this at home without a spotter.

TIDBITS

-Through December 20, marked by a three-game absence, Herro was averaging 3.5 free-throw attempts per 100 possessions. On the low end for a player with such a high usage rate. But since then, he’s up to 6.2 per 100. The games where he spikes to 8-10 attempts tend to have more to do with the team being in the bonus than anything else, but he’s getting guys on his shoulder and drawing contact far more regularly than he was in the early stages of the season. Significant step toward being less dependent on field-goal percentage.

-The HEAT have hit 20+ threes in a single games 12 times in franchise history. That’s No. 15 in the NBA, with Houston (63) and Golden State (37) leading the pack. The wild part is that of those 12, five of those games have come against the Milwaukee Bucks (including last this past Wednesday). Only the Mavericks (against the Warriors) and Rockets (against the Kings) have hit 20+ against a single team at least five times, and they both have far more total games where they’ve passed that total. The Bucks have a defense that gives up a lot of threes in an era with more threes than ever, so they tend to pop up on the list for a lot of teams, but 5-of-12 is still a wildly high rate.

-The Sixers are not a team that uses a ton of zone. Their high for zone possessions in a game this season is 13. They’ve been in double digits only three times. Against Miami Saturday night, they used zone on 22 possessions, allowing 0.54 points-per-possession. The HEAT eventually found enough offense with another night over 45 percent from three, but worth keeping an eye out for that later on. As much zone as the HEAT use, they aren’t immune to their own troubles with it.

“We had to adjust to that,” Caleb Martin said after the game. “Once we got to our zone offense a lot quicker things started to open up. At first it was hard to adjust because we were getting into it a little bit slow.”