featured-image

Sustainable Energy: Jimmy Butler And The HEAT Keep Shooting Historically As They Take Game 1 In Boston

You’ve probably heard the phrase, ‘It’s a make or miss league.’

There are many situations for it, and it’s used by just about everyone. Players. Coaches. Fans. Media. It’s a factual statement, sure. Some shots go in, some don’t. Not exactly a novel observation. The words, however, are not the meaning. The meaning comes from the when and where and how it is applied – the why is almost always to explain away the unexplainable. A verbal shrug.

“How did that guy score so many points down the stretch?”

“Sometimes, it’s a make or miss league.”

More need not be said after that. It’s understood that something special must have occurred, something beyond schematics and strategy and adjustments. Something magical.

Time and time again over the past month, the exploits of the Miami HEAT have been best, and perhaps only, explained by that phrase. How did they, the No. 25 ranked team in Offensive Rating this year, put up one of the best postseason shotmaking games of the past decade – literally the fifth best at 19.6 percent shooting over expectations, per Second Spectrum’s tracking data – in Game 1 against one of the best defenses in the league in Milwaukee? It’s a make or miss league. How did they follow up a regular season in which they shot 34.4 percent from three, fourth-worst, by shooting 45 percent across five games – something they did not do across any five-game stretch all season – to knock off the No. 1 seeded Bucks? Make or miss league. Bring up small sample sizes all you want, but every other team is working within the same small samples and they aren’t doing this.

How, then, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston, did Miami put up its second game of this posteason over 50 percent from three? How did they shoot an effective field-goal percentage of 75.5 on their 49 jumpers, the third-best postseason performance of the past 10 seasons? How did they win despite one of the worst Shot Quality games of any team in these playoffs – sixth-worst of 152 games – while Boston posted one of the best?

How did they score a franchise-postseason best 46 points in the third quarter?

It’s a make or miss league.

Drilling down on make or miss qualities is a bit like trying to explain Movie Magic. That thing you know when you see it, when you feel it, when you’re transported to another plane of experience by it but you can’t quite put your finger right on what it is. It’s there when Victor Laszlo leads a rendition of La Marseillaise at Rick’s Café. It’s there as Jesse watches Celine dance to Nina Simone. It’s everywhere as Max Rockatansky watches a sandstorm sweep up the war boys’ convoy, or as Indiana Jones chases down the Lost Ark on horseback.

What is it, exactly? Forget it, it’s magic. But that magic is the product of work – of blood, sweat and tears poured into a project over years by people in different departments with different skillsets. It’s work coming together to create something beautiful.

In so much as there is beauty in a shot going through the net – and there damn sure is – Miami isn’t so different. They’re making their own movie, albeit one being recorded live, the results free of post-production. The magic of it all may be unexplainable, but the work isn’t. Part of enjoying a little luck is preparing yourself for the possibility of it.

The work builds confidence in isolation, but it comes from your environment, too. From encouragement. This was always going to be a series about Jimmy Butler – tying his season-high with six mid-range jumpers – and Bam Adebayo. Boston switches as well as any team, on and off the ball, and eventually switches are going to dig your offense a deep enough hole that only one-on-one scoring can pull you out of. Butler and Adebayo – his bursts of aggressiveness in the first and third quarters, attacking both Al Horford and Robert Williams, offering stability in times of need – producing 26 points on 21 combined isolations – was as much a reason for Miami taking a 1-0 lead in this series as any other. They also give just as much if not more than they take, creating opportunities for everyone around them and telling them to shoot, demanding that they shoot, regardless of make or miss.

“Huge, huge credit to our guys who are playmaking for us. [Butler, Lowry], Bam is getting doubled, you see he’s making plays off the double teams. Guys are getting us open looks, we have to do our job and knock them down,” Caleb Martin says. “We just have to be ready when we get the ball. No overthinking stuff, no second-guessing stuff, just be confident in your craft.”

Adebayo has been seeing extra defenders crowd his catches all season, a byproduct of Spoelstra refocusing the offense around him and defenses making the requisite adjustments. Now those reps are paying dividends.

Celtics Game 1: Bam Double Assist

Max Strus wasn’t second guessing himself, either. This is going to come off as the most minute of minutiae, but during that explosive third quarter Strus hit just the third three of his career – first in a playoff game – off four or more dribbles. Five minutes later he hit another, this one after seven dribbles.

Those are not shots Strus is taking, much less making, without being afforded the freedom and confidence to do so.

“We got two guys, our stars, that give us all the confidence that we need,” says Kyle Lowry, whose 13 points in the second quarter prevented a Boston lead from getting out of hand. “I'm dead serious. Jimmy and Bam and these guys and our coaching staff, and we know the work that we put in. When you have guys that are so unselfish and give us the confidence to do it, we are going to do it. We don't want to let them down.

“Even if we miss shots, they are still like, ‘Shoot it again’. That gives us all the confidence that we need.”

Preparation, from coaching, helps, too. Against the Bucks and their mostly conservative, paint-protecting drop coverage, players knew where and when they could get a shot. A couple dribbles off a screen and there would be space to pull up. Boston’s scheme is more complicated than that, and it will evolve from here, but many of the shots earned in Game 1 were far from surprising. Preparation builds expectations.

Celtics Game 1: Caleb Martin Corner Help Threes

“They were kind of expected,” Martin said of the shots the team was getting. “The way we got them today, they’re coming to double, they’re overhelping from corners.”

It’s a testament to the quality of their opponent that Miami didn’t win this one going away. The Celtics were determined to get into the paint in the first half and there wasn’t much the HEAT could do about it. Just as in Game 1 against the Knicks, 40 points in the paint were surrendered in the first half. And just as in that game, an honest assessment begat results.

“We have a great video group, and they put up all the stats at half,” Adebayo said. “[They] basically showed us where we were wrong and how we can improve in the second half. So after watching it and talking to the coaches, we are honest with one another, look each other in the eye and say how we feel and what we need to get done.”

Boston proceeded to score 22 in the paint in the second half – about the same number of drives, only less efficient drives. There was no cure-all adjustment. Butler denied Jayson Tatum the ball when he could. Miami did a better job forcing turnovers, Tatum and Brown combining for 10 of their team’s 15 evoking some of the HEAT’s best moments of last year’s series. They also just did what they do, shrinking the floor and defending with physicality, and did it better.

“It’s just a mentality,” Gabe Vincent said. “Sometimes you have to get punched in the mouth to wake up a little bit.”

Even with all that, with the shots pouring in to silence yet another raucous crowd and the defense once again righting itself mid-game, Miami had to win in the small, fleeting moments. They had to win in the margins, in Butler recovering off his own drive to crash the glass and earn an and-one, or recovering his own deflected miss at the rim to extend a possession which led to a three. They needed Malcolm Brogdon, helping off the strong-side corner, to close out to Cody Zeller at the three-point line rather than Strus mere feet away. The needed Al Horford to chase his own missed three from the slot, leading to a Kevin Love transition triple, or for Marcus Smart to hold his follow through and watch his own shot as Strus leaked out for a touchdown pass. They needed Williams to save a rebound under Boston’s basket for Love to lay up for an easy two.

They needed all those things for perhaps the single best offensive quarter in franchise playoff history, and it was only enough for a five-point lead with two minutes to play. That’s how small the margin for error is in this series, how many win conditions need to converge for an actual victory.

None of that will matter to this team. They don’t care what had to happen for them to win, only that they win. Whether that is a rational approach or not as each game is picked apart in the hours after the final buzzer, it doesn’t matter. They got here by finding a way, but not always the same way. Why should they care what way it is?

We can all sit back and say what is or isn’t sustainable. Logically, it can all make sense. Mathematically, it can check out, even when dealing with small sample sizes. A shot profile doesn’t matter much when you make all your shots, but Boston has reasons to feel good about this game, too. They can take their own solace in sustainability. Some things just can’t continue.

But try telling all that to Milwaukee.

TIDBITS

-The HEAT are now one of 16 teams to have two games in a single postseason of 50 percent shooting on at least 25 tree-point attempts. Cleveland, in 2015-16, has the record with four. Teams are now 19-1 when shooting that well in a Conference Finals or Finals game, with the lone loss coming from Orlando in 1995. Miami notably shot that well in their title-clinching Game 5 of the 2012 Finals against Oklahoma City, otherwise known as The Mike Miller Game.

-NBA teams are now 135-3 when posting an effective field-goal percentage of .635 or better in a postseason game. One of those three losses came from Boston in their Game 1 loss to Philadelphia.

-Miami used zone for six possessions in Game 1, against which Boston scored 1.50 points-per.

-Butler’s eight made jumpers are tied for the second most he’s made in any game in a HEAT uniform, matched by his Game 6 performance against Boston last season. The best jumper game of his Miami career, when he made 11, came in his 56-point masterpiece against Milwaukee in Game 4 this year.

-Boston’s 29 threes were the second fewest they’ve attempted in the postseason. They took 26 threes in their Game 1 loss to Philadelphia.

-Boston scored 1.24 points-per direct pick-and-roll, on 64 picks, while the HEAT produced 1.06. Miami actually switched more screens, 27 to Boston’s 21, and while the Celtics were more efficient when they attacked their switches both teams wound up scoring 1.33 points-per across all possessions which featured a switch (but were not necessarily used by the player drawing the initial switch).

-Adebayo’s five post-ups, producing nine points, were a postseason high.

-The last time Kyle Lowry scored 13 points in a postseason quarter was Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors in 2019. The highest scoring quarter of his playoff career is 18 points back in 2016.

-Representative of the shifts Spoelstra made to his offense this season, which were largely in response to how Miami’s offense struggled against the Celtics, Miami ran just 15.6 handoffs per 100 possessions in Game 1, at 0.80 points-per. In last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, they used 28 per 100, but those handoffs produced just 0.68 points-per.

-A little perspective from Boston’s side when it comes to that game-turning third quarter:

“The only thing we need to adjust to is picking up our physicality and playing some damn defense,” Marcus Smart said. “That's the only thing they switched. They didn't change anything from the first half that they weren't doing, they just upped their physicality and that's it. There's nothing tactical, X's and O's, it's just come out and guard your yard.”

That phrase, ‘Guard your yard’, has been one of Adebayo’s favorites over the years, but it tends to come up especially in the context of Boston matchups.

-NBA players with 35 points, seven assists, six steals and three or fewer turnovers in a postseason game? Jimmy Butler and Michael Jordan.