The Miami HEAT are 12-14, No. 10 in the Eastern Conference with a Net Rating of -1.9, No. 25 in the NBA. They finish up this brief home-stand against the Spurs Saturday night before embarking on another four-game trip, including an excursion to Mexico City. Here’s what we’ve been noting and noticing.
THE COHERENCE OF JIMMY
The HEAT have a funny relationship when it comes to switching defenses. Because they rely so much of free-flowing actions and movement to get to their most valuable shot opportunities at the rim and beyond the arc – even with the isolation game of Adebayo developing at a rapid rate, those possessions are most likely to end up with mid-range two pointers – any team that can functionally switch one through four or five can flatten Miami out and stall their offense into what are typically the most inefficient zones on the floor.
That’s pretty much exactly what happened against the Clippers. Miami only took 50 percent of their shots at the rim or from three – well below league average, and you can compare to 63 percent for the Clippers – and took a season high 32 non-rim paint shots. Fortunately for them they made 17 of those attempts, which was enough to carry the day, but it’s not the shot profile they’re going to deliberately seek out night-to-night.
But the other side of switching is that there is sometimes a part of the game when you’re just fine with being flattened out. Say, for example, you have a five-point lead in the final five minutes of yet another clutch game – exactly the time and score where expected shot value takes a bit of a backseat to the game management aspects of completing a win. At that stage field-goal percentage can be more valuable than effective field-goal percentage because you just want to keep the train on the tracks, shots going up without turnovers and the clock moving.
If the other team is switching, you get to do all that while finding the best possible matchup for your best player. It’s exactly what other teams have been doing to the HEAT for years, and its how Miami was able to ride Jimmy Butler to a victory over the switching Clippers.
“It’s pretty much league wide,” Erik Spoelstra said. “You’re not going to be running flex with six minutes left or motion offense from the old Indiana Hoosiers. You’re going to get the ball in your best players’ hands. But you have to be purposeful in this league, there’s a lot of different schemes you can do to burn clock. You don’t want to be caught in the last five seconds with a home run play. Your purpose has to be great, everybody has to be on the same page, and your spacing is so critical out of whatever action you’re trying to get to at the end.”
With the Clippers giving up the switch to keep the ball in front, Butler was able to draw either Reggie Jackson or Luke Kennard pretty much at will down the stretch. Watch these possessions and keep an eye on the scoreboard.
Notebook 35: Jimmy Clippers Isolations
Eight seconds. Nine seconds. Twelve seconds. Butler isn’t playing with fire, putting himself at risk for a late double team. He’s just eating enough clock, ensuring a shot goes up and not giving the ball away.
“We got the ball where it was supposed to go,” Adebayo said. “It was just a very fluid fourth. We never got worried. We kept trying to put points on the board. Fourth quarter sometimes people can get complacent and stop attacking so they can keep the lead, I feel like we did a great job of trying to take what the defense gave us and shots were going in.”
It may all sound elementary, but for a team that came into Thursday’s game No. 25 in fourth quarter Offensive Rating, just being coherent and composed with a lead in a tight game goes a long way.
It helps, too, when the player you’re relying on down the stretch happens to be one of the best isolation guys in the league. After producing 1.09 points-per-isolation a year ago, Butler is putting up 1.25 points-per this season at a rate equivalent of most other top scorers in the league not named Luka Doncic – with that 1.25 good for No. 2 in the league behind Kyrie Irving.
You can’t run your entire offense this way and expect to be successful, nor does every team have the matchups worth hunting. You can’t survive on a diet of contested two-point jumpers. Still, there’s a time and a place when it’s the best food at the buffet. As far as Thursday night was concerned, chalk up a victory for coherence.
After using 53 isolations over the course of four games and producing 1.16 points-per-possession with them, Bam Adebayo was bound to start drawing more attention. Sure enough, in two games against Memphis and Detroit the defense starting creeping closer and closer in the paint, not exactly sending hard double teams but offering soft, make-you-think attention before closing for a contest. In those two losses, Adebayo used 12 isolations – with minimal post-ups logged because of how often he plays face up – half the volume of the previous four games, and produced 0.66 points-per (with five turnovers against the Pistons).
Notebook 35: Bam Memphis Turnover
It wasn’t quite as sudden a development as it seemed, largely appearing so because of two consecutive games against a Boston team that largely hasn’t sent help at Adebayo – even in the Eastern Conference Finals – as they trust Al Horford to keep the ball away from the rim as they cut off passing lanes to shooters. And Adebayo naturally wasn’t going to keep shooting 60 percent on those long paint shots forever.
It also wasn’t the first time Adebayo started seeing doubles. When he had his long scoring stretch a couple of years ago, with his career-high 41 points against Brooklyn sandwiched in the middle, he started drawing help then as well (after Brooklyn also made a clear point of defending him one-on-one in order to prioritize shooters). But then the team got healthy, Adebayo’s isolations went back down and it became something of a moot point.
All of which is to say that the more Adebayo uses isolations and scores at a productive rate with them, he’s naturally going to start seeing extra attention as the scouting report changes. And if it those changes start consistently generating simple possessions like this one against the Clippers – two on the ball, open shooter on the weak side – that could spell panacea for a Miami offense in dire need of solutions beyond threes going in.
Notebook 35: Pistons Move Away From Bam
“Just passing out the double,” Adebayo says. “I feel like that’s the biggest thing. When they put two on the ball, I feel like that’s an easy pass out and they’re in rotations from there.”
There are many more layers to this that we’ll dive into at length down the road once we’ve seen this play out a little longer. This is a test that has multiple questions and multiple answers, and it takes time before you can get a clearer picture of how effective a player can be with increased on-ball attention and focus. For now, this is as positive an offensive development as the HEAT have had in what has been a very uneven first quarter of the season. For later, it could change the entire way Miami’s offense operates.
LEARNING ON THE FLY
Speaking of important developments, the most important thing happening under the surface of everything the HEAT are trying to do this year is that teams continue to find ways to either keep Adebayo out of actions entirely or get him switched out on the perimeter and drag him as far away from the play as possible. It all started happening in earnest in the second half of last season, and with every game it becomes clearer and clearer that teams are becoming smarter about how to deal with one of the league’s premier one-on-one defenders.
Most teams at least. When a young team in Detroit came to town on Tuesday, some of their younger players still had lessons to learn. Killian Hayes, for one, thought attacking Adebayo was a good idea on more than one occasions.
Notebook 35: Killian Hayes Attacks Bam
In this case, Detroit got wise real quick. In the first three quarters of that game, Adebayo was logged as the closest defender on 12 shot attempts. In the final period, that number was two. It certainly helped that the Pistons leaned on their veterans down the stretch, by which point we started seeing what has become practically commonplace in HEAT games. Adebayo dragged out of the play, the Pistons finding the matchup they want.
Notebook 35: Pistons Move Away From Bam
“It’s all good man, it’s part of the agenda,” Adebayo says. “They’re going to try and take me out and have their rights and wrongs.”
Granted it wasn’t Adebayo’s best defensive game, either. Bogdanovic beat him off the dribble once in that fourth quarter and got to the cup. Everyone needed to be better than they were in that game. Still, it was interesting to watch a young Pistons group adjust on the fly. It’s becoming more and more rare to see someone like Killian Hayes, much less Paul George on Thursday, try and attack Adebayo on the perimeter. How the HEAT are able to adjust to this and evolve – which we’ve seen with fewer early switches in addition to all the zone – will likely define their season on the defensive end.
-Miami ran fewer than five possessions of zone defense against the Clippers for effectively just the third time this season. They still gave up 1.14 points per possession because the Clippers shot the ball so well, getting plenty of good looks along the way, but that’s still close enough to league average and it’s a positive to see them be able to close a game out against a good team without having to lean most of their weight on zone coverage.
-The HEAT are one of seven teams currently shooting better on pull-up threes (35.8) than catch-and-shoot threes (32.8). That’s problematic at the moment, but there’s a world where the catch-and-shoot numbers start to improve and the pull-up number remain relatively consistent. That’s a very good world for Miami’s offense.
-A huge part of those pull-up numbers is the fact that Tyler Herro is currently at 45.3 percent off the dribble. He was excellent on one-dribble relocation threes last season, and he’s at 57.1 percent on those shots this season, but he’s also draining nearly half of his threes off 3+ dribbles. Another welcome development.