The Miami HEAT are 25-22, No. 6 in the Eastern Conference with a Net Rating of -0.1, No. 17 in the league. They are No. 7 in Defensive Rating and No. 24 in Offensive Rating having just finished up a 1-2 road trip. Here’s what we’ve been noting and noticing.
THE DALLAS DOUBLE
Normally you see a 25-point road loss where the fourth quarter was essentially non-competitive and, unless a number of those games are being strung together, you think to just toss it in the trash and keep things moving. If you’re a good enough team, and the HEAT have been good enough lately, that’s a luxury you normally have.
Something happened in Dallas that almost never happens, and as such we can’t just throw it away.
Coming into the game, Jimmy Butler drew a second defender on approximately 9.8 percent of his isolation possessions. On post-ups, that number was 6.4 percent, where he’s been hard doubled less than three percent of the time. In the playoffs last season, Butler drew two on 4.5 percent of his isolations and 1.5 percent of his post-ups.
Why is this relevant? It’s something which has been at the core of Miami’s offense for a couple of seasons, especially since Kyle Lowry joined and freed up Butler to pursue more matching chasing options. Butler can and has punished switches regularly, and before games you can pretty much just look at the opposing roster and pick out who Butler will be posting up later that night. But unless it’s a severely disadvantageous matchup, most teams have elected not to send two to the ball. This was especially noticeable in the Eastern Conference Finals when Boston – granted, a team that lacks poor defenders in general – routinely settled for single coverage against Butler and Bam Adebayo in order to cut off passing lanes to Miami’s shooters.
It’s not a complicated strategy, especially for switchable teams. As good as Butler and Adebayo – especially this season – can be attacking, they’re both going to be working in two-point ranges. Even if they shoot 50 percent out of isolations or post-ups, which would be good for 99 percent of NBA players, that’s still just around 1.00 points per possession. That tactic may have cost Boston Game 3 and Game 6 when Adebayo and Butler went off, but the HEAT’s offense struggled throughout the series and it was tough to argue against their plan.
So Butler and Adebayo have typically not drawn consistent doubles. And then in Dallas Friday night, Butler drew a second defender just about every time he touched the ball below the free-throw line.
Notebook Vol. 41: Jimmy Sees Dallas Double
This wasn’t a matchup thing. It didn’t matter who was defending Butler. Dallas wasn’t trying to save any specific defender. Jason Kidd clearly had implemented a plan to swarm Butler on any catch below the free-throw line and make him give up the ball, similar to what many teams try against Luka Doncic.
In theory this should be a good thing for Miami’s offense. They’ve been starved for two-on-the-ball situations for years, relying on their shooters flying off screens to generate freak out moments for defenses. While Tyler Herro has started to bend defensive shells with a little more regularity this season as a starter running so many actions with Adebayo, it hasn’t been a dramatic shift.
What Dallas did was dramatic. It was purposeful. And, for one game, it worked. Butler only took seven shots, had one assist – three potential assists – and zero hockey assists. In fact, the entire team had zero hockey assists as the HEAT score less than 100 points per 100 possessions. There were a couple of sequences of extended ball movement that looked like what you’re supposed to do against a strong-side double, but Dallas’ rotations were on point and Miami never really took advantage.
Weirder still, the HEAT only took 20 threes – tying their lowest total attempts of the past three seasons. Typically teams that double are going to give up threes simply because they don’t have enough defenders remaining to cover the rest of the arc, so to see the HEAT run off the line and forced into mid-range shots – which Victor Oladipo was making enough of to keep them hanging around for a stretch – was particularly eye opening. The Mavericks enjoyed the benefits of doubling and never had to pay the debt it usually comes with. They walked out of the store with a free 8K television.
Of particular note, Dallas did not do this when these teams last played last February. They sent a couple doubles in the fourth quarter of that game, and maybe they saw something there when reviewing film, but it wasn’t a comprehensive approach like this was.
Miami will be more prepared for this if it happens again. It’s understandable if they were caught a little off guard given that it’s not something they’ve dealt with much before. But that’s also the interesting part of all of this. The NBA is a copycat league. If teams see something on tape that worked for another team, they’ll think about using the same ideas with their own personnel. It’s not at all uncommon for an entire playoff scheme to be based on something that happened in one game in January, February or March.
So the question is whether this is a one-time thing or not. Two-on-the-ball should be a good thing for the HEAT, but the calculation might be different if their shooting doesn’t come around – and if they can’t get more than 20 attempts off.
Time will tell. The next team that tries this might get shredded, but we won’t know until we know. For the moment, Dallas won this round with something we’ve rarely seen happen to the HEAT before – and four years into a build centered around Butler and Adebayo it’s rare to see such a different tactic. It’s fresh, and in some ways exciting to see the HEAT get something new to problem solve, but given their offensive struggles this season they don’t exactly need new problems to solve.
Even after we’ve spent the vast majority of the season discussing the various changes in Miami’s offensive system, why they’ve partially led to a scoring downturn and how it could pay out dividends down the road in the deliberately paced postseason, this is going to fairly nitty gritty. When we get to the usage statistics concerning this particular item, you might laugh. But there is a particular type of play we’ve seen much less of this season, and any significant change no matter how small the scale is interesting. So here we are.
Last year one of Miami’s most recognizable sets, at least for the hardcore crowd, was the team’s split actions they ran out of the post. The ball goes down to the block. Everyone else cuts and screens. Sometimes, a layup or an open three would come to pass.
They wouldn’t run it all the time, but when the offense was slowing down and the team needed something easy, the splits were at least an option to turn to. When Bam Adebayo was out for all of last December, Erik Spoelstra trusted P.J. Tucker to man the post and make the right pass.
Notebook Vol. 41: The Old Splits
The HEAT only scored off a direct post pass 0.78 times per 100 possessions, but in today’s day and age where posting up is a difficult and incredibly specialized action that was good for No. 4 in the league. The Denver Nuggets, with all their Nikola Jokic creativity, led the league at 1.18 direct post assists per 100.
This year Miami’s rate is down to 0.32 per 100, which drops them down to No. 22. Their post-up rate overall is down from 5.3 to 3.8 per 100 – dominated largely by Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. And because those two tend to be chasing mismatches and are not frequently doubled – at least until Dallas – their post-ups are designed for scoring first, not playmaking. You can tell by the lack of movement on the perimeter when they’re working near the blocks. Miami is trying to create the proper environment for Butler and Adebayo to succeed with spacing – they’ll station a Max Strus as the high man at the top of the arc to dissuade the nearest defender from easily digging in on Butler’s dribble, for example.
This is all just another part of why Miami’s assist rate is down from 64.4 (Rank 5) to 60.1 (Rank 14) this year, a four-year low, despite putting up 37 assists in New Orleans the other night. They’re trying to optimize their offense for the games that count the most. Big picture, it’s a sound plan founded on very real experience (such as the Eastern Conference Finals). It just means that little actions which would create the occasional relief bucket have fallen somewhat out of favor.
-Wonderful story from longtime Blazers beat writer Jason Quick at The Athletic (Subscription Required) on former HEAT player Justise Winslow. Erik Spoelstra makes more than a quick cameo in the piece, which offers insight on the connections he tries to make with his players. Glad to hear that Winslow has found some peace and stability.
-Over the past five seasons, the only player who has tried more isolations against Bam Adebayo than Luka Doncic (36) in the regular season is Giannis Antetokounmpo (37), with nobody else topping 30. Pretty impressive for a Western Conference player. Doncic has produced 1.00 points per possession out of those isolations – a solid number for most players but below-average for Doncic, who has put up 1.10
-We already went over the All-Star cases for the trio of Butler, Adebayo and Tyler Herro a couple of weeks ago so we won’t belabor that point. Reading various stories and listening to various podcasts in the NBA sphere – nobody can get to them all, but we can try – it seems there’s a bit of a split among the media as to whether Butler or Adebayo should be Miami’s representative as a reserve. Some have picked both of them as well, but it’s more often been one or the other with Butler not being penalized for missed games, narratively speaking at least, as he may have been in the past. Herro, who for his part is having an even better season after being on the fringes of the All-Star conversation during his Sixth Man of the Year campaign a year ago, has very rarely been mentioned. Part of that is the team’s record – teams aren’t going to get multiple All-Stars as often when they’re outside the top four in the conference – part of that is having two great players ahead of him and another part is the East’s stable of All-Star quality guards is as deep as it has ever been.
-Before the loss to Dallas, Miami was one of two teams, with Toronto, this season to have two players posting a Steal Percentage (percent of opposing possessions that ended in a turnover while said player was on the court) over 2.9. Since Steals were tracked, only two teams in NBA history have had four players hitting that same mark in the same season – the 1993-94 Hawks and the 1998-99 Sixers – and no teams have had more than two since the turn of the century.
-It’s official, the 2022-23 HEAT have played more zone defense – 1,092 possessions – through 47 games than any team in the tracking data era which begins in 2013-14. Their usage has slowed over the past month, but they were on pace to double up the previous record for a while. Oddly enough, league zone usage is actually slightly down from 2018-19 when the HEAT set the old record.
-Through December 5, Miami was No. 28 in half-court man-to-man defense according to Second Spectrum, allowing 1.14 points per possession. Since Victor Oladipo returned on December 6 through January 19, Miami was No. 7, allowing 1.10 points per. In their man-to-man against Dallas last night, they allowed 1.32 points per in man.
-The Heat were 13-1 last year when taking fewer than 30 threes. This year they are 2-5.