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Coup's Notebook Vol. 65: The Zone Slows LeBron James, Strong Openings And The Five-Out Luxury Of Kevin Love

The Miami HEAT are 20-15, No. 8 in the Eastern Conference with a Net Rating of +1.2, No. 16 in the league. With a five-game West Coast swing over and done with, here’s what we’ve been noting and noticing.

MAXIMUM ZONE

LeBron James scored just two points on drives, a season low, in Miami’s victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday, attempting just five drives in total.

Not coincidentally, Wednesday also marked Miami’s highest zone usage game of the season, coming in at 43 possessions while allowing 0.97 points-per. As we detailed in our last episode the LA Clippers were able to punish the HEAT’s zone – Erik Spoelstra has been leaning on it lately in part because Jimmy Butler, Caleb Martin and Haywood Highsmith, perhaps the teams three best perimeter defenders who aren’t Bam Adebayo, have all been out – with lights-out shooting and smart, well-timed perimeter passing that took advantage of the HEAT’s catch-and-release rules around the edges of the coverage.

James is too smart, and too good a passer, for a zone to give him much of an issue these day, at least intellectually. In practice, though, beating the zone requires the player the zone is loading up against to have teammates who can take advantage when the right passes are made. On Wednesday, the Lakers shot 4-of-30 from three, one of the two or three worst shooting nights any team in the league has had this season. It doesn’t take advanced algebra to figure out why the zone worked. Now, Miami isn’t going to claim much responsibility for James going 0-of-6 from deep. Rewatching his attempts, they’re mostly right in his wheelhouse, but using a scheme that is more likely to give up looks to unproven shooters than driving lanes to one of the best attackers in the history of the game is just good strategy.

Part of why Miami’s zone has held up as a viable change of pace for all these years is that it is very rarely static. It can present itself as such, to make a player think a seam or a pocket exists when it might not, but the edges of Spoelstra zones are flexible enough to change on the fly, to invert or fold into themselves. Where the Clippers didn’t often send a body to the nail, the Lakers did, which offered a few different looks at how the zone changes dynamically.

First, here’s James calling for a screen at the top of the zone.

Notebook 65: Lakers Zone 1

Two things to catch here. First, even though the strongside wing player Kevin Love was on, Cam Reddish, goes to set the pick, Love neither follows Reddish nor retreats to the strong corner. Instead, he stays in place for a few beats, putting another body in front of James to make sure he know there’s no corner for him to turn. Second, while Josh Richardson is ostensibly the right side of the top of the zone, with Jaime Jaquez Jr. on the left, Richardson pulls through the middle of the zone to act as the screener defender on the pick. With Bam Adebayo lingering in the backline, James has three players immediately in his line of sight to dissuade an attack. James naturally knows the weakside is going to be loosely defended with defenders stacked on the strongside so he swings the ball and the Lakers eventually get one of their rare threes that evening, but that’s the sort of pass the HEAT are willing to live with there – a pass James might make consistently but one that is tougher for a smaller player like Trae Young, who Miami also uses this coverage against, to hit.

Later in that same quarter, James gets off the ball and goes to the middle. Kyle Lowry and Tyler Herro are the top of the zone here, but watch who pulls in to track James all the way to the left block.

Notebook 65: Lakers Zone 2

James gets the catch against Robinson, but at this point he’s effectively boxed in. He gets a good, makeable shot, but his options were limited because the zone allowed Robinson to leave his area, which didn’t have anyone in it, to account for the greatest threat. Miami has done this with Kevin Durant in the past.

Lastly, after Anthony Davis had done some damage in the third quarter by getting to the middle of the floor, forcing Miami out of the zone temporarily, watch how the zone collapsing in on Davis’ catch while James had temporarily been shown soft double coverage up top.

Notebook 65: Lakers Zone 3

Maybe Davis would be able to find Christian Wood under the rim had he been able to run through this same scenario a couple more times, but the immediate pressure puts him on his heels for the split-second that the pass was there before Adebayo retreats to cover the passing lane.

Miami’s zone is not at all foolproof. The fact that it’s allowing 1.19 points per possession right now is cause for some consternation and tracks with the irregular number of blow-by drives they’ve allowed this season – a red flag that may go beyond mere healthy and availability. But against the Lakers the zone may have bought the HEAT a needed road win largely because it remains one of the more flexible coverages in the league. As of Monday morning only the Utah Jazz have used more of the secondary look.

EARLY DOUBLES

For as much attention as there’s been on Miami fourth quarters this year, this flip side to that conversation is that the HEAT have been the third-best first quarter team, with a +9.6 Net Rating, trailing only the Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets. That’s far from nothing, especially when you consider how the HEAT won a handful of their postseason games last season, going up early and holding out a sturdy stiff arm, powered by the strength of many threes and stout defense, the rest of the way.

Miami hasn’t been that much better offensively early on than in any other quarter. It’s the defense that carries those 12 minutes, allowing just 105.8 points per 100 (would rank No. 1 for a full game) largely on the strength of a league-leading 16.4 percent opposing turnover rate. It’s a difficult thing to prove, but the longstanding theory on that is that there’s a bit of a shock to the system for teams when they play the HEAT, a team that doesn’t let you off the hook for paint-by-numbers offense or half-speed passing. They magnify your mistakes and force you to adjust.

The result is that Miami has held double-digit first-quarter leads – not by the end of the quarter, at any point – in 13 of their 35 games, two of those instances being 20-point advantages. They’ve also trailed by double digits five times, which means over half of HEAT games have featured a ten-point advantage by one side.

Of course with the fourth quarter being what it has been, those early leads haven’t correlated to much. When they’re down, they come back. Early leads will dissipate, as they will for so many teams in the era of three-point volume, and the HEAT are 8-5 after holding double-digit leads in the first period, a 61.5 winning percentage up against the league average of 71.1 percent league average. Miami is 12-10 when leading outright after the first quarter. When they hold those leads and lead at the half they’re 17-4.

KEVIN LOVE AND THE FIVE

Where would the HEAT be without Kevin Love?

Posing that question is not to say there aren’t plenty of other positive happenings happening on the roster amid the lineup turmoil as injuries come and go, only that Love has arguably been the most positive and it’s not by happenstance.

When Love has been on the court this season, Miami is +9.6 per 100 possessions – for a reference point, Naz Reid is at +4.2 per 100 and he’s the leading big man in 6th Man of the Year odds – with an Offensive Rating of 119.2 that would rank Top 5 in the league and a Defensive Rating of 109.6 that would rank No. 2. Generally speaking, his minutes have been statistically flawless. That doesn’t mean Love is a cure all. Numbers like these are always context dependent. You don’t just play a player more expecting the same level of success without considering the environment in which he’s had that success.

In truth, there are two Loves.  The first is a center all by himself, often playing against opposing bench lineups, as the HEAT are scoring an absurd 127.8 points per 100 in those five-out looks, allowing 113.8 going the other way for a +13.6 Net Rating.

“It just shows a different dynamic of our team,” Jaime Jaquez Jr. said. “Especially when he subs in for Bam it’s kind of like a whole new offense. You got Bam as a big, roll to the basket threat and you got Kevin popping out in pick-and-roll, it’s two different styles and I think they complement each other very well. That’s why the offense is really jumping the way it is.”

The reasons for the scoring efficiency are fairly obvious. Outside of a elite pull-up shooter – or an elite movement shooter like Duncan Robinson – that consistently draws two players to the ball, little greases the offensive wheels like a true stretch-five that teams actually respect from the perimeter (Love is taking five threes per game at 35.7 percent, 38.8 percent since the start of December). When centers have to pull themselves out of the paint to defend a legitimate three-point threat, and there are no other non-shooters on the floor where they can hid, a clear paint leaves any offense just a couple downhill dribbles away from a rim attempt or a collapsing defense and a kickout. Love is 35 years old and not as fleet of foot as he once was – speed was never exactly his strong suit – but he’s been more than willing to put the ball on the floor when the moment is right.

Notebook 65: Suns Love 1

If that’s all Love was, a volume shooter, a floor spacer and occasional attacker, that would be enough. For a veteran acquired after a buyout last season, that’s exceptional value. But, and this is where Love’s All-Star pedigree comes into play, he’s far more versatile than that. As much as we credit someone like Jaime Jaquez Jr. for his ghost cuts out of the corners, Love will occasionally catch a defense, perhaps one expecting him to remain a standstill spacer out past 20 feet, off guard.

Notebook 65: Jazz Love 1

And when teams switch his perimeter actions, he’s still plenty capable of walking a switch defender down low and sealing them off for a score. Between Love, Adebayo, Jaquez Jr. and Butler Miami has received good mileage out of interior flashes and seals, with Kyle Lowry’s small-window entry passing the straw that often stirs that particular drink.

Notebook 65: Suns Love 2

Outside of last season when he was injured in Cleveland and arrived in Miami late, Love’s usage rate of 20.6 is the lowest of his career. His true-shooting percentage of 61.3 is just a tick below his career high of 61.4, and he’s producing .194 win shares per 48 minutes, his highest mark since his last season in Minnesota back in 2013-14 before joining LeBron James in Cleveland. Add in the fact that he’s still one of the two or three best outlet passers in the league, and one of the best two or three half-court passers on the team, and you have a player whose impact has been undeniable. The HEAT are as improved offensively with Love on the floor as Phoenix with Devin Booker, Sacramento with De’Aaron Fox and Indiana with Tyrese Haliburton. That’ll most certainly do.

The other Love is the one who isn’t playing a stretch five. Spoelstra has used Love next to Adebayo for just over 1,000 minutes this season, and Miami is only +2.5 per 100 in that time. Still solid, but just barely better than Miami’s Net Rating for the season. Defense has been fine in those minutes, in part because teams are shooting just 31 percent from three, but the offense drops down to 112 per 100. When Love isn’t the center pulling another center out of the paint, there’s simply less geographical impact as he plays a more traditional – yes, the passing, shooting and rebounding still matter – role.

The question then, is, for as great as those smallball minutes have been with Love, and for how important they’ve been to keeping Miami’s offense above water, how many of them will be available in the postseason? Spoelstra only went with Love at center for about three minutes a game during the Finals run, 70 minutes over 23 games, with Love not playing in the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals or Game 1 against Denver. That’s a question for down the road, especially with Miami allowing more paint points this season than in any of the previous four.

For now, for today and the time being, Love has been excellent. The HEAT could not have asked for much more.

TIDBITS

-Bears repeating every once in a while, but Miami is No. 5 in Defensive Rebounding Percentage. The fact that they are No. 26 in total rebounds per game is meaningless.

-Miami is taking 28.9 percent of their total shots at the rim, the third lowest in the league.

-Duncan Robinson is 4-of-18 from three over the past two games, the only true cold spell of his season, and he’s still topping 42 percent on at least seven threes per game – still good for the 19th season in NBA history hitting those marks. Robinson previously did so in 2019-20 while Steph Curry has done it eight times.

-The HEAT are No. 18 in pick-and-roll switches per game at 14.6 per 100, the first time since 2019-20 that they haven’t been in the Top 3 in that category. Now that we’ve had time for this to settle, relatively speaking given all the injuries, it’s worthy of deeper examination down the road.