The Miami HEAT are 29-25 after finishing a 1-3 road trip, with -0.1 Net Rating. They are No. 26 in Offensive Rating and No. 5 on defense. They one home game coming up before Thursday’s 3 pm Trade Deadline, and then four more games after that until the All-Star Break. Here’s what we’ve been noting and noticing.
After a disappointing two-game stretch against the Milwaukee Bucks in January, the HEAT finally got to see them closer to full strength with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton available.
Milwaukee has always been a bit of a litmus test for that season’s roster. After acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala before the trade deadline in 2020, the HEAT proved to have the requisite personnel to contend with Antetokounmpo as they upset the Bucks in the second round. After Miami lost Crowder in free agency and the Bucks added Jrue Holiday, fortunes reversed and the Bucks swept the HEAT out of the first round. Then the following season began with a resounding 42-point opening night victory with P.J. Tucker flanking Bam Adebayo in the starting group.
That’s why it’s always preferable to see the best of what your opponent has to offer in the regular season. It’s the only way to get a sense of what you have and how it might work in the playoffs. We need to see how this iteration of the HEAT can contend with Antetokounmpo’s length on Jimmy Butler. We need to see how Adebayo will handle some of the most severe drop coverage in the league, against which he scored more paint buckets with Brook Lopez defending than any player had during Milwaukee’s Lopez era.
We also need to see how this roster is going to deal with one of the league’s all-time freight trains. Typically, Miami has had the answers. Over the past four seasons, playoffs included, only the Warriors (46.8) have held Antetokounmpo to a worse effective field-goal percentage than the HEAT (49.5 percent). Considering the two-time MVP has averaged an eFG north of .580 in those seasons, that’s nothing to sneeze at. Even in the four-game sweep of 2020-21, Antetokounmpo’s effective field-goal number was merely .456.
How the HEAT have done it is no secret to anyone. Build a wall in transition, make Antetokounmpo see and consider the threats of multiple bodies at all times, take charges and employ one of the best defenders in the league in Adebayo. Miami’s base scheme is always to shield off the paint from all comers, even at the cost of giving up some threes – particularly in the corners, where they allow the most shots in the league – and against the Bucks they just dial up their natural tendencies. Antetokounmpo averages 18.4 paint attempts per 100 possessions over the past four seasons. Against the HEAT that’s dropped to 15.2, third lowest among all teams.
So they keep him out of the paint, even at the cost of letting him take just about any jumper he wants. Speaking to those jumpers, are you ready for a real mind breaker? In four years and two postseason series against Miami, Antetokounmpo’s effective field-goal percentage on all jumpers entering Saturday’s contest was 21.4. That’s 15-of-91 shooting – the worst he’s shot on jumpers against any team in the league. Is some of that luck? Probably. Of those 91 shots, 27 have been completely uncontested according to Second Spectrum tracking data. Of those 27, he made five. Even as Antetokounmpo has struggled with his jumper over the years – in some regular season games he appears to be taking them just as a developmental project, or to prove a point even if other things are working fine – those are sub-bad numbers for anyone.
Good thing we waited until today to mention these statistics, then, because you can’t say they were a jinx after the game Antetokounmpo had on Saturday. The good news is he shot just 1-of-5 on jumpers, the bad news is that it didn’t really matter who Miami put on him or how and from where they brought help. For the most part, Antetokounmpo – shooting 12-of-14 on non-jumpers to go with 11 assists – made all the right plays. He busted through the wall when it was late, he found shooters over the top when the wall was there early. He took the help, stretched it out and found the open man. He screened for the ball to get himself going downhill and, perhaps most strikingly, he didn’t commit a single offensive foul against a team that has always taken pride in stepping front of him.
In the Butler era, playoffs included, Antetokounmpo had just one game with a Game Score of 30+ against the HEAT. Against all other NBA Teams, he had 64. He also had three games with a Game Score in single digits against Miami. Against all other NBA Teams, he had six. So when we say his Game Score on Saturday was a best-ever vs. Miami 34.6, it’s no small thing.
The question going forward is whether this is an aberration or not. Miami has had their own encouraging moments against the Bucks this season, with Butler, Adebayo and Herro all looking plenty comfortable in the mid-range against drop coverage in all three games, but Antetokounmpo looking like he did on Saturday was worth an arched eyebrow or two.
HE BOUNCES IT, HE BOUNCES IT AGAIN
We’ve looked at Bam Adebayo’s increased offensive load every which way possible this season. Career highs in usage and scoring on his way to a second All-Star selection. More isolations. More pick-and-rolls. Fewer handoffs. More upper paint shots than anyone not named Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the league as Adebayo makes a living at the dotted line. It’s all becoming quite commonplace for Adebayo as his 30-point showings cause your eyebrows to raise a little lower on your forehead each time they happen.
Even so, Thursday night in New York looked a little different than the different we’ve come to expect. It was tough to put it into words as it was happening, but fortunately we have numbers to substitute where words weren’t getting the job done.
For starters, Jimmy Butler’s usage rate in that nip-and-tuck fourth quarter was just 5.3 percent. Even as Butler has been prone to some deferential nights along the regular-season path, he’s almost always played a significant role in Miami’s late-game offensive package. During his first two seasons in Miami, Butler only had one fourth quarter with a usage rate in single digits. Last year, he had three. This season, he’s already up to six. Last week we dove into how Miami’s clutch offense is slowly improving, and how that may prove beneficial come the stylistic shifts of the postseason, but whether it’s small-sample noise or not the HEAT are clearly diversifying their menu and leaning more on actions between or centering on Adebayo and Tyler Herro.
Butler wasn’t absent, either. Spacing can get a little awkward at times when he’s off the ball, so he went ahead and became a screener for Adebayo down the stretch, trying to draw a switch for Adebayo in the same way Kyle Lowry does is for Butler.
Notebook 43: Butler Setting Screens
Butler’s 10 screens in this game were hardly a career high, but the two he set for Adebayo in the fourth tied for the most between those two players in a final period.
Bringing this back around to Adebayo, part of why his 30-point, 16-shot game looked unusual is because he was playing more like a star wing – bringing the ball up, working through the offensive progressions to get the right spacing for an attack – than ever before.
Here’s where numbers help. In Adebayo’s entire six-year career coming into New York, he had taken just two shots after 15 or more dribbles. Against the Knicks, he took two.
BAM LONG DRIBBLE ATTACKS
That possession against Isaiah Hartenstein was certainly the first time Adebayo had taken a 15-dribble shot in the fourth quarter of a close game, and his three 10-dribble shots – of which he now has 38 for his career – are the most he’s ever taken in a single game. For the sake of comparison, Adebayo’s four career 15-dribble shots are more than Nikola Jokic (2) and Joel Embiid (1). That doesn’t make him a better offensive player than those two MVP candidates, but even in tiny, tiny little samples it helps to illustrate how Adebayo is evolving into something unique.
Could Adebayo stand to get to the rim – the jumpers are great, especially in need-a-shot playoff moments, but they’re still producing less than a point per possession – and the free-throw line more, with both rates currently at career lows? Sure. Maybe those things come back, or maybe they don’t. But every hallmark in his development, no matter how small they may seem, are worth commenting on. Thursday in New York was certainly something new.
EMILIO ESTEVEZ’S WORST NIGHTMARE
Erik Spoelstra dipped a little deeper into the arsenal against the Knicks for a couple of fun plays, running elevator doors first for Tyler Herro on the opening possession of the game and then later for Max Strus. Herro didn’t get the shot off, but Strus did.
Notebook 43: Strus Elevator Doors
This is hardly the first time the HEAT have used this type of set but it’s always fun to see it because it’s one of the more High School-ish plays run in the league. We say that because even though the Golden State Warriors may have popularized it thanks to the deadly efficiency of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the doors were used long before that. We used to run it on baseline out of bounds situations to setup a corner three and you could count on it working at least once per game.
If there was a play that could best sum up Miami’s elite but also weird and somewhat situational defense this season it happened late against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Adebayo switched out onto Darius Garland to keep the offense flat, as they’ll do plenty of despite the overall switch rate being lower this season, which leaves the paint wide open with nobody over 6-foot-7 around to help.
Watch what Butler, leading the league in steals for the second time in three years, does:
Notebook 43: Butler Fingertip Steal
Spoelstra called this a “ridiculous steal” afterwards, saying it looked to him like Butler baited the pass from Garland. No way to know if that’s true or not, but it tracks with what we see. The only time Butler takes his eyes off Garland are when he peeks his shoulder to see what Evan Mobley and Donovan Mitchell are setting up behind him – otherwise he’s watching the eyes of the quarterback. If he stays where he is or moves with Mobley initially, Garland probably just passes to Mitchell. But because Butler slides a step toward the arc to cut off Mitchell, Butler gives Garland what looks like a clear passing lane. To Garland’s credit, it was a clear passing lane. It’s just that Butler has some of the best closing speed in the league when it comes to passing lanes, and he recovers for the deflection.
That’s sort of Miami’s defense this season in a nutshell. A brilliant defensive play from a brilliant defensive player, but fingertips were the only difference between a steal and a dunk for Mobley. We don’t need to belabor the point we’ve made multiple times about how the team is one of the best in the league at forcing turnovers but much less effective against possessions that end in shots or fouls – this is just the razor’s edge the team is living on defensively. Against the Knicks a couple of nights later, Butler and his teammates took some early risks in the passing lanes and it cost them a couple of stops.
-After Tuesday’s win in Cleveland, the HEAT are now 47-5 when shooting 45 percent or better from three since Butler joined before the 2019-20 season.
-Drop coverage is always relevant when you play Milwaukee, much less the Bucks and Cavaliers in the same week. It feels like, behind the development of Adebayo and Tyler Herro along with the off-dribble capabilities of guys like Gabe Vincent, Kyle Lowry and Victor Oladipo, that this might be the most well-equipped HEAT roster in recent memory for dealing with drop coverage.
For whatever reason, however, the numbers aren’t adding up. As a team, Miami is scoring just .982 points-per-screen against drop, per Second Spectrum, No. 20 in the league and the lowest mark of the past four years. You might think that’s affected a bit by the across-the-board drop in three-point shooting, but even on possessions only used (shots, fouls, turnovers) by the two primaries in the action, the ballhandler and the screener, they’re producing just 0.94 against drop, also the lowest of the past four season. Herro is still one of the best drop killers in the league, No. 10 among all ballhandlers with 300+ reps (1.10 points-per), so it’s odd that the numbers aren’t quite adding up especially when you consider how well they’ve scored against the Bucks until yesterday.
-Tyler Herro had his jersey retired at Whitnall High School outside of Milwaukee on Friday night and was joined by the majority of his teammates and the coaching staff.
-Adebayo earned his second All-Star spot on Thursday night, which was more than well-deserved considering he’s literally been everything and everyone for the team this season. While we don’t get voting results from the coaches vote like we do most everything else, it’s pretty likely that Adebayo and Butler split the vote, in a sense, as it was unlikely that Miami – or anyone else, given that’s it’s probably more difficult than ever to get two reserve All-Stars in the play-in era with so many teams contending for playoff spots – would get two names called for Salt Lake City. “As for me, I’m happy I get a vacation,” Butler told media following the loss in Milwaukee.