The Miami HEAT are 11-12 with a Net Rating of -1.0, No. 20 in the league. They’re about to finish off this four-game trip in Memphis and then they get three at home against the Pistons, Clippers and Spurs. Here’s what we’ve been noting and noticing.
As impressive as Miami’s victory in Boston was on Friday night, easily their best of the season, the story of the game wasn’t the final result. No matter how historically good the opposing offense has been or how much the HEAT have struggled on the road, it should never be a surprise when they find a way to make things work. When you’re leading the league in clutch games, you’re both doing enough to be in all of those games and are always giving yourself a chance. That chance allowed some incredibly tough Jimmy Butler jumpers – sandwiched around a ridiculous Jaylen Brown three – to seal the deal. Some nights those fall and the other team misses some threes, some nights it goes the other way. Miami gives keeping themselves chances at the positive outcome.
So the story wasn’t the opportunity to win or the realization of it. The story was that the HEAT earned their shot in the final minutes by returning to their man-to-man defense that had largely been troublesome all season.
In the seven games Butler missed, the HEAT were averaging 50 possessions of zone defense a game. They weren’t just breaking zone records, they were shattering them, walking through the broken glass and entering an entirely new dimension of defense. Questions abound about the sustainability of the coverage, especially with the best teams faced during that stretch, Cleveland and Boston, generally getting whatever they wanted against zone. It was the best option available, what with the half-court man-to-man defense ranking No. 28 in the league. They survived, not thrived, with zone.
After the Celtics scored 1.12 points per on the 63 zone possessions Miami used in Wednesday’s loss – a game the HEAT made close thanks to their own offense catching fire – Erik Spoelstra used Butler’s return to get his team back to their roots. Only eight zone possessions on Friday, and the man-to-man allowed just 1.01 points per – the third-best man mark of the season. It wasn’t just man, either, it was the brand of man defense that made Miami such an elite group a year ago. Miami switched just 15 screens per 100 possessions with Butler out. In beating Boston, they switched 45, allowing just 0.63 points per on those screening actions.
What’s even more impressive is that Bam Adebayo only accounted for three of those switches because Adebayo, with Boston being all too familiar with how valuable it is to stay as far away from him as possible, only defended four pick-and-rolls all game as the Celtics planted whoever Adebayo was defending along the baseline and left him there. That meant a ton of switches for Haywood Highsmith – holding up incredibly well in this one as Boston might have thought he was a weaker defender than he actually is with how often they sought the matchup – and all of the HEAT’s perimeter defenders. As ever, even when the Celtics went after Tyler Herro the HEAT’s system allowed Herro to pressure up and compete on the ball knowing he had multiple defenders behind him ready to pinch into the driving lanes.
Can the man-to-man get back on track and start carrying Miami’s Defensive Rating – currently No. 8 thanks to all the zone usage – the rest of the way? We’ll see. Even if they get back to switching more often, which is a little more manageable against Boston with their lack of interior presence at least as far as keeping the ball out of the paint, it’s been made pretty clear that the league is done with Adebayo in pick-and-roll. The HEAT can try to defend like they did last year, but they aren’t going to be able to with teams not attacking them the same way.
Boston was a good, probably necessary given how zone historically falls off the more it is used, start. Still just a start, though. There’s a history against the Celtics, especially when it comes to forcing the turnovers that won Miami the game because of how they fed the offense. Butler being back enables man-to-man as a more viable option, but it wasn’t exactly a stalwart coverage when the team was healthier.
But you’ll take a start like that, against a historic offense, always. For the first time in a long time, the HEAT’s defense looked like what it is meant to be.
TRAPPED ON BAM ISLAND
While Boston and just about every other team has learned their lessons when it comes to attacking Adebayo one-on-one, Miami’s center has scored 30 points a night on 60 percent shooting over the past four games largely by forcing the issue on the other end as he hosts his own, private edition of Hell In A Cell.
Over the three previous seasons since Adebayo became a full-time starter in 2019-20, he averaged 4.6 isolations per 100 possessions on 0.92 points-per. Solid numbers, but both at low volume and not as effective as the elite one-on-one players in the league particularly when you consider how selective he was when attacking individual matchups. As Adebayo seeks to expand his offensive repertoire, he’s up to 9.1 isolations per 100, and now he’s producing 1.11 points-per.
During this four-game stretch? He’s using 17.8 isolations per 100 at 1.16 points-per. Effectively the same amount as Luka Doncic and his 37.8 usage rate. Let that sink in for a moment. During what might be the best four-game offensive stretch of his career, Adebayo is attacking isolations as often as the player who finished last season with the second most in the league and who currently leads the No. 2 player this season by over 45 isolations.
That’s a huge change in Adebayo’s profile, to say the least, especially considering he used another 12 isolations against Boston on Friday even with Butler back in the lineup. We went over his go-to moves last week so we won’t dwell on the how part of his one-on-one scoring too much, but safe to say he’s doing the vast majority of his work in the 8-to-15 foot range with that short, soft jumper.
Is this all a good thing? It’s obviously been working as far as Adebayo’s box-score line is concerned, and Miami has had an above-average Offensive Rating of 115.7 when he’s on the court over the past four games. If a player can expand his game, especially in such a way that makes him more dangerous in the slower, more methodically paced playoffs, while producing efficient offense that’s pretty much what you’re always asking for.
He’s also outkicking the coverage a bit when it comes to the quality of the shots he’s getting, shooting 60 percent over these four games on non-paint two pointers off two or more dribbles. That’s what great scorers do – a Kevin Durant is always going to out-shoot his expecting percentages based because that’s how good they are – but four games don’t make you a great scorer, especially when you’ve averaged 43 percent on those shots over the past two years. Seasons define scorers. If Adebayo is going to attack off the dribble at this volume, he’ll have to prove he’s this good at it. And maybe he just is.
Two things to keep an eye out for with these isolations. First, Adebayo rarely passes out of them unless he’s stopped and makes a retreat pass back out to a wing or guard. Unless a cutter goes baseline in front of him while he’s attacking – Caleb Martin is particularly good at this – it’s a score-first and score-second approach. Of Adebayo’s 92 direct isolations, those ending in a shot, foul, turnover or assist opportunity, only five (5.4 percent) of them have ended in a possible assist. To compare to Doncic, 18 percent of his direct isolations end in an assist opportunity. Some of that is how teams are defending Adebayo, with Boston doing just what they did in the Conference Finals and choosing to let Al Horford defend on the island while they cut off the shooters. There’s a reason Miami’s assist percentage on Friday, 39.4, was the lowest mark for the team since December of 2017.
If Adebayo keeps attacking like this, it’s the opposition who will let us know what it really means. Does he start drawing double teams, or at least late help? Do his isolations bend the defense, or is he scoring in a vacuum? Those are high-class questions to ask, but when you’re scoring like Adebayo has been recently, they’re the answers you have to seek. Whether or not the shots will keep falling is only the first layer of the onion.
THE SAY HAYWOOD KID
The HEAT have started to get as healthy as they’ve been all season long and yet who was it playing all 12 minutes of each fourth quarter in Boston? Haywood Highsmith.
Pretty easy to see why Spoelstra would trust him with those minutes, playing Highsmith as part of a nine-man rotation – excluding foul trouble minutes – as Boston scored just nine points on the 20 pick-and-rolls Highsmith was involved in on Friday, either as a defender on the ballhandler or the screener. And in the zone on Wednesday Highsmith was on point with the scouting report, swiping at Boston’s dribble and creating turnovers even when he wasn’t credited with a steal.
We’ve discussed how effective the front-court pair of Adebayo and Martin have been, and with either one of them on the court the HEAT have had their best defense by far. But now the same goes for Highsmith, albeit in about a third of the minutes, as Miami’s defense has improved by 7.4 points per 100 when he is in the game. He also leads the team in Estimated Defensive +/- at +1.7.
Even though Highsmith turns 26 in less than a week, he’s already played more minutes this season (267) than in the rest of his career combined (203). As with any inexperienced player, it can take a little more time, especially consistent time, to help them settle in. On the defensive end, where before the season it was thought that he could be the closest approximation to P.J. Tucker on the roster, that appears to be the case with Highsmith. He’s active. He can switch. He can run the zone. And he has Spoelstra’s trust. Between Highsmith’s flexibility and Martin’s prowess chasing guards around, Miami appears to now have plenty of defensive options alongside Adebayo.
As for the offense, we’ll have to wait and see. Highsmith’s 4-of-6 performance from three on Wednesday was a big reason the HEAT were even in that game, but he’s still at 28 percent on the season from the arc and 38.7 percent on two-pointers – though he’s started to get a little friskier off the bounce, throwing in the occasional fake handoff including one in overtime on Friday. Big picture, the HEAT will need better percentages than those. Highsmith’s defense has earned him the right to figure things out on that side of the ball. Even after those four threes, Boston was still playing off him on the perimeter on Friday. The only way to earn the respect of the defense, and eventually space the floor for your attacking teammates, is to make shots.
-After rebounding 80 percent of Boston’s misses on Friday, the HEAT are back up to No. 10 in Defensive Rebounding percentage.
-They’re also No. 3 in Opponent Turnover percentage, easily the greatest strength of their defense through the early stages of this season.
-One of the stranger numbers of the Butler era in Miami is that for as incredible as he’s been in the playoffs, Butler was shooting 2-of-21 on jumpers in the final minute of one-possession games during the regular season over the past four years. So of course he went 2-of-2 on those shots against Boston on Friday. Butler is too good for his percentages to remain that low, even in a small sample size.
-Though his three-game streak of nine-plus assists ended on Friday, the Herro-Adebayo pick-and-roll combinations continues to pay dividends. Of the 48 combinations that have used at least 150 screen this season, those two rank No. 18 producing 1.07 points per direct pick.
-Despite their offense being the bottom third of the league overall, the HEAT’s half-court offense has been hovering right around league-average for a while. Not exactly where they will want it to be, but it’s worth noting that it’s the lack of transition offense, outside of pick-six turnovers, that’s been more of an anchor than the half-court execution.