featured-image

Shorthanded Shipwrights: Down Multiple Scorers For Game 2, Erik Spoelstra’s Team Did What It Always Does And Found The Best Chance To Win

With Jimmy Butler out, the New York Knicks used 40 percent three-point shooting to take a tightly contested Game 2 to tie the series up 1-1 as it heads back to Miami. Here are the storylines to remember on the HEAT’s side.

TOGGLING 3-AND-Z

Erik Spoelstra will never go down with the ship.

That’s not to say he never loses. Of course he does, just like anyone else. He just doesn’t play the martyr, captaining a sinking vessel to the bottom of the ocean as injuries mount around him. Instead, when he and his staff start to feel the water rising above their ankles, they bail. Not into the water. They build a new boat and bail out into that one.

That new boat might sink, too, but at least it’s a new boat.

“You have to do whatever you have to do,” Spoelstra says. “Each game is its own deal.”

To understand Miami’s approach to playing a Game 2 in New York without Jimmy Butler, you only have to look back to December of 2021. Bam Adebayo had injured his thumb and was about to be sidelined for at least that entire month, if not more. Miami’s entire defense was predicated on being able to switch just about any action, all of it enabled by Adebayo size-and-speed gifts. Miami’s offense was built on the efficient threat of Adebayo pick-and-rolls and handoffs. Without Adebayo, the foundation was gone.

Spoelstra could have chosen to stick with the system and try to plug-and-play their other centers into it. He also could have chosen to go conservative and run a more traditional defensive system, with added outside-in help to adhere to Spoelstra’s typically paint-conscious philosophy. Instead, he got a little weird with it, dialing up his usage of zone defense to over 11 possessions per game – often much, much more – which was double the rate of any other month that season.

At this point we should mention that Jimmy Butler missed 11 of the first 12 games that month, too. The offense wasn’t just about to take on water, the bow of the ship was pointing towards a deep, sunken crevasse. What Spoelstra was left with was a cadre of willing shooters, so he leaned in. In all other months that season, the HEAT attempted 36.5 threes per 100 possessions, just about league average. In December, they attempted 40.5 per 100, a Top 3 rate for a full season.

Miami shot 40 percent from three that month and won seven of those 12 games. The 3-and-Z HEAT were born. A second suit to swap into whenever the first needs dry cleaning.

All of this is to say that the HEAT have been building towards the style they played in Game 2 against the Knicks for years. Their 49 three-point attempts were the most in franchise history for a postseason game that ended in regulation. The 62 possessions of zone they played were the second-most any team in the entire league has played in a playoff game, over the past 10 seasons, according to Second Spectrum, trailing only Game 2 of the 2020 Finals when Adebayo was out against the Los Angeles Lakers. There were no surprises in the gameplan.

“We knew what we were going to do,” Kyle Lowry said of playing without Butler.

This is their other boat, and they were a couple of minutes away from making it to port.

What has always been unique about Miami’s zone is how adaptable it is to the opponent of the day. Sometimes they’ll play a traditional 2-3, especially when the other team doesn’t have many players who are comfortable working in a crowd. They generally aren’t that rigid, playing less of a zone and more of a blob – one that folds in upon itself to protect high-value areas. Last season they played a hybrid box-and-one against Kevin Durant, only with the lower wing defenders swapping responsibilities for trailing Durant when he changed sides of the floor, just as Kevin Love did in Game 2 to try and prevent the middle entry.

Knicks Game 2: Love Cover Middle Zone

Knowing that Miami was willing to invert the zone and stack bodies in the middle of the floor, New York didn’t take the traditional flash-middle approach.  Apart from some swing-swing possessions where players like RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley were able to catch on the move and dive into the seam, the Knicks generally had two approaches to cracking the zone. First, they screened the top of the zone – met with an interesting counter from Miami. Instead of bringing Adebayo up to catch the action higher up the floor, or shrinking in wings as they might do in man-to-man, Spoelstra had the second piece of the zone’s top-two – often Gabe Vincent and Caleb Martin, longtime partners at the top of Miami's zone – the one not being screened, sprint over and drop into a literal drop, effectively recreating the small-small drop coverage Miami used against Brunson to close Game 1.

Knicks Game 2: Zone Screen Gabe Drop

As it did during Miami’s victory, this coverage essentially maintained two-layers of defense between Brunson and the rim – the smaller guard dropping in front of the ball and Adebayo, constantly managing his allotted three second in the key, lurking in the paint behind him. With Julius Randle available and Adebayo’s skills required to contend with him in man-to-man, the zone allowed Adebayo to hang around the paint as he previously did when he was attached to Mitchell Robinson – in turn making verticality plays like this possible.

Knicks Game 2: Bam Verticality

New York’s other approach, specific mostly to Brunson and Randle, was to use their physicality to back down a corner of the zone and slowly force defenders to collapse. Rather than forcing a bang-bang play where they were driving into the teeth of the defense, generally forced to pick up their dribble due to Miami’s defensive spacing, the slower back downs allowed for a more procedural approach to reading the floor. Set up right, as it was in those final minutes when New York took control, this Randle back down sprung Josh Hart free for one of his crucial corner makes.

Knicks Game 2: Randle Zone Back Down

The good news is that the zone was working as intended with regards to protecting the paint. New York had just 34 points in the paint for the entire game, fewer than they had just in the first half (40) of Game 1. In that sense, the zone was dictating the shot profile that was intended.

“It was good to mix in,” Gabe Vincent said of the zone. “It served its purpose tonight.”

The other side of the coin is that the Knicks starting to make all those threes they were missing in Game 1, making 10-of-22 just against the zone and 16-of-40 overall.

“It definitely put them in more . . . not really driving and trying to get to the rim but they were shooting threes,” Adebayo said. “They shot 40 (percent) from three. The thing is just to make them stagnant, stand around. I feel like they got a fluidity with the zone after seeing it so much.”

That’s often the case when it comes to zone. Some teams never figure it out, but generally the more they see it the more comfortable they get. Even if New York’s approach was never particularly aesthetically pleasing, they had a plan. While half the purpose of zone is to confuse the opponent and therefore enhance your man-to-man coverage, the Knicks, thanks to those corner threes, scored 1.16 points per possession against zone versus 0.77 against man – albeit with a Shot Quality throughout which would have ranked No. 30 during the regular season.

“They hit some clutch ones,” Max Strus said. “That’s part of the risk you take [in zone].”

Even without the gaudy defensive results that have at times accompanied their zone usage – again, you’re going to give up threes in that coverage and the Knicks hit theirs – most everyone asked after the game said something along the lines of, ‘The zone did its job.” The main disappointment was with the four offensive rebounds allowed – another area which requires extreme dedication in zone – in the final six minutes.

“When it becomes winning time you have to make some plays,” Spoelstra said. “Those second chance opportunities were really the deciding factors. The things that we take pride in, ball in the air ball on the floor, they pretty much dominated that those last six minutes.”

Adebayo echoed a similar sentiment, “Those were the costly efforts in the zone, ball in the air ball on the floor. I feel like we came up short.”

There’s a decent chance that we never see anywhere close to this amount of zone the rest of the series, whether Butler plays Game 3 or not. That card has been played. The gambit almost stole a victory. The Knicks made their adjustments and now they’ll be ready for it, whether they make or miss from three.

Miami has a well-deserved reputation for bringing in highly competitive players who see opportunities like Tuesday night, when they’re without two of their best players and nobody is giving them much of a chance to win, with all the anticipation of a five-year old watching mac and cheese being made on the stove. These games are their food.

But showing up and competing isn’t enough. You have to adapt in extreme circumstances. Game 2, a loss though it was, is just another example for an endless list of games where Spoelstra had another seaworthy ship ready to board.

FOUR’S A CROWD

Adebayo was hard on himself after the loss, taking responsibility for what he called a “terrible” game.

“I just have to play better. I feel like this game is on me and I lost it for us,” he said.

While we can’t speak for Adebayo, from his postgame comments he seemed to be mostly focused on the offensive rebounds allowed down the stretch and for a four-point play – with Miami up six and just under seven minutes to play – he was involved in when he ran through a screen just as Brunson was putting up a corner three. Whether he had thoughts on scoring 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting, he didn’t offer them.

Still, it’s his point total that is often the outside focus so let’s briefly discuss it with a few points.

First, while the HEAT have dipped their toes into these waters – especially during some severely shorthanded games against Brooklyn – this was not an isolation-heavy game for Adebayo, but it was an efficient one. Of Adebayo six isolations, Miami scored nine points, with Adebayo drawing two fouls on Mitchell Robinson in straight one-on-one play that helped force Robinson to the bench for much of the game. For comparison’s sake, Randle had 20 isolations.

Second, one of the things we’ve been discussing all year is how the HEAT have tilted away from emphasizing a three, to a degree, in order to lean into shot creation, playmaking and mismatch hunting from Adebayo, Butler and Tyler Herro. But part of being the 3-and-Z HEAT for a night is getting up a ton of threes and Miami’s best way to create those threes is to leverage Adebayo’s screening and handoff ability to free their shooters.

Adebayo screens produced 1.30 points-per in Game 1. In Game 2, that number dropped to a still-pretty-good 1.14. Remember, he’s not running these actions with Herro or Butler anymore. He’s trying to create shooting space for Vincent, Max Strus, Duncan Robinson and Caleb Martin. When those players are taking the shots that were required of them in Game 2, shots that everyone on the team is encouraging, Adebayo is simultaneously doing his job and also going another possession without a touch. From New York’s perspective, this is by design. Watch how they defended his rolls into the paint in this one.

Knicks Game 2: Bam Fourth Man

Forget about the third defender that was expected to get into Adebayo’s way even before the series began. He’s sometimes seeing four bodies on his way to the rim before even catching the ball. And yet what was the result on both of those possessions shown above? Open, catch-and-shoot threes.

You can argue that using Adebayo as a rim-diving center and using his gravity to create threes isn’t maximizing his skillset if you want, but the plan was to take a ton of threes and the plan very nearly led to a win. There’s a version of this game where Adebayo is getting more opportunities to create for himself against some good defenders – albeit against a defense that, again, is showing regular help in the paint. The HEAT just stuck with what was working.

Adebayo was clearly disappointed with his own play and we’re not going to argue that he had a great game. It’s just helps to consider the context of the gameplan and how a player is being covered by the opposition. Miami simply used the latter to inform the former as they nearly beat the odds.

MEN IN (MANY) HATS

Game 2 isn’t a game is Vincent and Martin don’t combine for 32 shots much less convert them for 43 points. That’s just the reality of the situation. Shot creation is at an absolute premium. Martin and Vincent have been more than willing, as ever, to oblige.

Martin has been one of Miami’s best players this season, and easily their most reliable role player regardless of what role he’s playing. Now, with multiple creators down, he’s followed up hitting a three in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s face with step-back threes and sometimes-rollicking paint attacks.

Knicks Game 2: Caleb Martin Aggression

“It’s just being in that role from the beginning of your career to fill every void that needs to be filled,” Martin said. “That’s only benefitted us for games and moments like this. A lot of us came from offensive backgrounds coming out of college and I don’t think that’s ever left. We keep that confidence. When the moment is there we try and take advantage of it.”

One of the more interesting aspects to what Miami’s role players have been going through the past couple of weeks as they adapt on the fly is how they calibrate their inner shot quality detector. As Vincent said a couple times after the game, basketball is still basketball at the end of the day and these guys know how to play, but taking a deep pull-up three – Vincent made 32.5 percent of those in the regular season, 38.2 percent in the playoff on more than double the volume – in the fourth quarter of a tightly contested game is different if there’s an All-Star in the game who should be getting a touch.

“I’m sure all 17 of my shots weren’t great, but I told everyone in our locker room and on our staff that if I take a bad one, let me know,” Vincent said. “I’m just trying to make the best read for my team. They continue to put trust in me and I’m going to continue to shoot if I’m open.”

One sequence in the fourth quarter highlighted why it’s so important for Vincent to keep shooting the looks in front of him even when Butler returns, whenever that is. With Quickley scoring a couple in a row, Vincent answered back with this three that left the Madison Square Garden crowd murmuring with bewilderment.

Knicks Game 2: Gabe Pullup Three

An audacious shot given the circumstances, but the same shot Vincent was making against Milwaukee. That’s not the interesting part. On the next HEAT possession, watch how Barrett is defending Vincent with the ball at the same angle, same distance.

Knicks Game 2: Gabe Drive Tight Coverage

If Vincent hadn’t established himself as a credible threat to make that shot, Barrett doesn’t push up on him and the driving lane isn’t there. A couple minutes later, Hart was so eager chasing Vincent over the top of a screen to contest another pullup that he fouled, putting Vincent at the line for three free-throws.

We don’t know if this was part of Spoelstra’s thinking for upping the three-point rate, but a healthy side effect was that with guys like Vincent, Martin, Robinson and Strus hunting for their own offense – that undrafted group combined to attempt 35 triples and score 69, with another five from Haywood Highsmith on top of that – rather than asking them to regularly make plays against New York’s help-heavy defense, it helped to keep Miami’s turnover to just six. Throwing a pocket pass or a lob into a crowd is the definition of a risky situation. There are only so many ways to turn the ball over while shooting off the dribble. Miami’s effective field-goal percentage of 54.7 was fine, good enough to win a game, but playing relatively mistake-free offense buoyed their Offensive Rating to 119.3. In games without Butler this season, Miami’s Offensive Rating was 109.1. In four games without Butler and Herro, it was 98.3.

If New York lost Game 1 largely because of their inability to make threes, then they won Game 2 because those same shots, especially 6-of-12 from the corners, happened to fall. Whether the HEAT are largely in man or zone next time out, their scheme is always going to protect the paint first and the arc second. After the all-time shotmaking series Miami just had against Milwaukee we have to acknowledge, now and forever, the possibility of a team just getting hot on the shots they become comfortable knowing they can generate over the course of a series.

For now, it took 40 percent from three to beat Miami without Butler and Herro. Spoelstra’s adjustments in Game 1 won them that game, and a different set of changes almost won them Game 2. With or without Butler, more are surely set for Game 3. That’s what Spoelstra’s teams do. They adapt. Whoever is available, they continue to do whatever is necessary to give themselves a chance to win. You have to beat them, and do it convincingly. They won’t do it for you.