Of all the words Jimmy Butler had for his teammates, and for himself, after the Miami HEAT lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves Friday night, that one stood out. It wasn’t the harshest bit of tough love Butler expressed that evening, but when it came to Bam Adebayo that single emphasized word, nestled into a longer quote about attacking the paint, summed up Butler’s ask entirely.
So, the ball in his hands and the shot clock turned off against the Brooklyn Nets Sunday afternoon, Adebayo went.
If there has been a critique of Adebayo in a season that has been yet another step forward for the young All-Star, it’s that he has at times struggled to balance his growing offensive skillset with the foundational night-to-night role he plays as Miami’s central hub. For two years now, all actions have gone through Adebayo. His teammates rely so heavily on him to get them open looks, to the point that Adebayo regularly takes the brunt of the responsibility if Duncan Robinson doesn’t get enough attempts, that Adebayo forgets to get his own despite regularly plugging into The Matrix to download a new ability or two.
“You know me, I like to pass,” Adebayo says when he and Butler, who didn’t play Sunday, share the floor. “I’ll just be trying to get him the ball so much, I almost forget about me and mine. He’s been harping on me about that.”
In this case, Neo needed a little reminder that he now knows Kung-Fu.
When the shot went in to sink the Nets it was as pure and joyous a moment as there’s been in a Heat season full of ups, downs, fits and starts, but it wasn’t the proof in the pudding for Adebayo’s next moment of ascendance. It’s that Adebayo took the shot at all.
When Adebayo got the stop on Kyrie Irving with the game tied – more on that later – the HEAT had two timeouts remaining. They had just tied the game on a Goran Dragic coast-to-coast finish, so Erik Spoelstra waited to see if they could get a repeat. When that didn’t happen and the ball found Adebayo’s hands 20 feet out, the initial plan was to use a timeout to set something up.
“Spo said if we get a stop, call a timeout,” Adebayo said. “I wasn’t cool with that.”
If you replay the sequence above, you can see exactly when Adebayo turns his head toward his coach on the sideline and gives him the look.
“He handled it the right way,” Spoelstra said. “He looked over to the bench, and at that point we just made eye contact. My hands were up and it was just like, ‘Ok, it just better be the last shot.’”
In that split-second, there was no Should I or Could I. The heart and mind weren’t playing You Go This Way and I Go That Way with Jackie Chan. The decision was made before the shot went up.
“I’ve always dreamed of that moment,” Adebayo said. “I knew what I could do when I was younger. [I’m] getting to explore my game, with Spo letting me actually call plays, having the respect and trust for one another to where he’s like, ‘I’m not calling timeout, this is your moment.’”
“That was good recognition and great poise on his part,” Spoelstra said.
In many ways, you could see a shot like this coming. Not just because Bam has boosted his mid-range shooting percentage to 43 percent from 22 percent (with plenty added volume off the dribble) since a year ago, sustaining the gains he made during the postseason. Not just because he’s waded further out, toe by toe, foot by foot, into isolation waters as his game expands. But because he’s already been a buzzer beater, just not at the end of games. Often left holding the ball at the end of a possession if actions break down around him, Adebayo had hit 15 jumpers in the last second of the shot clock this year alone. Only three players – LeBron James, Julius Randle and Luka Doncic – had hit more. Adebayo has never been one to feel the clock.
Nor has he been one to lose a battle, either. It’s easy to take for granted years after we were all shaking our heads in disbelief as he stayed in lockstep with Steph Curry, but night after night players think they can attack Adebayo because he’s a quote-unquote big-man. Night after night, they learn The Lesson.
For his part Sunday, Kyrie Irving couldn’t crack the code as he shot 0-of-8 when defended by Adebayo. The HEAT won on Adebayo’s shot, but they were in position to win after trailing late in the fourth quarter because of Adebayo’s defense and what that forced Brooklyn into.
Nobody has switched more screens this season than Adebayo, and for good reason. Good teams have figure out how to work around him, but nobody has consistently found a way to work at him. You may be able to exploit Miami’s scheme if you can work the ball to the weakside, moving Adebayo around the chessboard in the process, but it’s Miami’s (Top 10-ranked) scheme for a reason. You cannot exploit Adebayo himself.
The aforementioned critique of Adebayo on the other end of the floor hasn’t always been fair. No doubt understandable after everyone on the planet watched Adebayo put the Boston Celtics away in the Eastern Conference Finals clincher last year, but unfair nevertheless in scope. Many, including Adebayo, has sought for him to sustain an aggression, to make it his new normal. Spoelstra himself has often been inclined to divert the conversation, publicly, away from the scoring and towards the sheer breadth of Adebayo’s role and the weight on his shoulders. The missing context in the conversation has been just how new that part of the game has been for him, and the imperfections that comes with that newness.
Put differently, Adebayo hasn’t always been all that great at the things being asked of him outside the confines of the locker room. Not yet, at least. The HEAT derive 1.5 points per drive when Adebayo passes out of them, but less than a point per possession when he shoots, draws a foul or commits a turnover. The same splits are present across his isolations (1.42 when passing, 0.92 otherwise) and post-ups (1.36 and 0.84, respectively). When the right passing read is there, Adebayo has been elite. When it becomes an Adebayo play, less so.
And keep in mind that in the past three seasons, Adebayo’s post-ups per 100 possessions have doubled while his isolations, once nonexistent, are up nearly 800 percent. The efficiency isn’t even poor, it’s just not every-time-down-the-floor efficiency, much less matchup-agnostic.
“I’ve never been one of those dudes who is a pure, natural scorer,” Adebayo said.
At times the demand has appeared to be for Adebayo to be a player that he isn’t yet. A player that he can be, but one that is in some ways more a year away than a week. It’ll come, and understandably all anyone really wants to see are the steps being made along the way.
Beyond improving as a scorer, which he’s no doubt already done, the true next step will be in being a scorer and a playmaker at the same time.
When the HEAT played Brooklyn in January and Adebayo put up a career-high 41, it was largely because Nets coach Steve Nash opted to keep Jeff Green in single-coverage and hope the isolation math game played out in his favor. It did, just barely. Until the final moments Sunday, when Green was once again left on an island with Adebayo, Nash had a more dynamic plan. With Butler out and Adebayo naturally soaking up more touches, the Nets came at him with switches, doubles and traps from all angles.
It’s may not be pretty to look at, but those turnovers are just as important a part of Adebayo’s journey as being the hero walking off into the sunset with Grace Kelly. He can be John Wayne Gary Cooper for a night, but to reach the ceiling that doesn’t exist he’ll have to manage the schemes and strategies that come with becoming the player everyone knows he can be.
“We went to him a little more in the post so I think those reads were really good for him,” Spoelstra said. “And they were mixing up where that trap was coming from. And again, Bam’s intentions are so good and so giving. A lot of those turnovers are where he’s trying to get somebody an easy basket.“
While the journey continues, it’s important to have perspective on how far Adebayo has come. Coming out of Kentucky, the thought was that he would immediately be a rim-running, athletic center. He immediately opened eyes in his first Orlando Summer League with full-court bust-outs – not to mention the eventual defensive switch genius-erey against star players – but hidden as it was the skillset was not even inefficient, it was raw. Flashes are flashes for a reason.
If you track Adebayo’s development season-by-season since then, there’s always something that he’s in the process of improving. Where the touch around the rim was once a concern, that concern has since been all but eliminated. When the jumper was a sub-30 percent proposition, that’s now topped league average and then some. When he was challenged to be a leader, he stepped up.
“He’s still quiet,” Goran Dragic joked at first when asked about Adebayo’s development. “You can see all these stages, how he develops into the personality and the player he is today. He’s got a great potential. I still think he’s not done yet. I still think he’s going to hit another level.
“I’m happy for him that he made that shot, and many more to come.”
If you traveled here from 2017 and saw “Bam Adebayo Hits Game Winning Jumper” on ESPN’s bottom line, you probably would think it was some desperation heave against the clock, not a clear-out isolation. But here we are, and here is already plenty good.
As far as Sunday is concerned, does this all look a little different if the Nets are at full strength or closer to it? Functionally, no doubt. With James Harden and Kevin Durant on the court, the Nets are the greatest stress-test imaginable for Miami’s defensive scheme. With Butler also absent, there is very little predictive value as far as the postseason is concerned. It’s just a needed win in a tight playoff race.
But that’s got nothing to do with Adebayo. The player he is now, and the player he can be, transcends the stories and needs of the current season.
For him, what matters today is that when the all-on-you shot was there, Adebayo both asked for it and took it.
“Go,” said Jimmy Butler.
And Bam did.