The Miami HEAT are 4-6 with a Net Rating a -1.8 after two close wins over the Warriors and Kings and a similarly close loss to the Pacers, which puts them at 3-3 in clutch games this season. With a four-game homestand on the docket, here’s what we’ve been noting and noticing.
Part of the reason Tyler Herro as a starter always seemed like it would work, on paper, is that Herro was one of the best catch-and-shoot players in the league last year. He was so good off the catch, actually, that it obscured his relative percentage inconsistencies with the ball in his hands despite the volume scoring that came with leading directly to him winning Sixth Man of the Year.
This year, the profile has flipped. Somewhat. Herro has been middle of the pack shooting off one or no dribbles – we include one for the relocation dribbles that often happen off the catch – but among the 62 players who have taken at least 50 shots off two or more dribbles he sits No. 19. His effective field goal percentage on those shots is up to 53.1 from last season’s 45.1. The Shot Quality is up, too.
Now, there is a distinction to draw here between touch time and actual isolation play. Herro has been dynamite in the pick-and-roll producing 1.15 points-per-screen as a ballhandler – a little better than that with Adebayo, which Adebayo says Spoelstra has reminded them of more than once – yet the added efficiency off the dribble has so far not translated to isolation efficiency. Last year Herro produced 0.84 points-per-isolation (including direct assist opportunities), and this year that number is down to 0.77 albeit on only 36 possessions. Certain matchups, particularly against big wing defenders, can be troublesome. But in these last two games without Jimmy Butler, Erik Spoelstra has trusted Herro with classic late-game isolations – in fact the shots Herro took against the Kings and Pacers were the first two multi-dribble, half-court shots of his career in the last ten seconds of a one-possession game (outside of a game in the bubble when most of the starters were resting pre-postseason). Those chances don’t come along very often. Butler only has 12 of them in four years himself. It remains notable that Herro had the ball in those spots if only because it makes you wonder if Spoelstra has taken Herro’s off-the-bounce efficiency into account.
Herro doesn’t have to be a great isolation scorer. There aren’t very many of those in the league that can do it at a postseason level, and fortunately the HEAT have one of them in Butler (1.07 points-per-isolation over the last three years). But if Herro is going to be a starting-level, high-usage scorer, someone whose usage spikes into the 30’s with Butler off the floor just as it did last season, then those multi-dribble shots are hugely important. If the gains he’s showing are for real – and there’s zero concern of him losing anything off the catch – it’s a major long-term development regardless of what the team’s record is today.
ZONE OF THE EXTENDERS
Every year for the past five years, the HEAT win games because the other team just can’t figure out their zone defense. It is as much a part of the team’s defensive vocabulary as any pick-and-roll coverage at this point. Despite the reputation zone may generally have across the sport, Erik Spoelstra has often used the look from a position of strength – weaponizing his cadre of long, rangy, versatile defenders to slash the tires of any offense that thinks it may be in for just another game.
It certainly worked against the Warriors the other night. Miami played a whopping 36 possessions in zone in that one, allowing just 0.72 points per possession, including 18 during Golden State’s 15-point fourth quarter. Not only were the Warriors, forced into some contested threes, missing shots, but the secret effect of the zone was fully at play.
The Warriors generally have the quickest offense in the league. Their average offensive possession takes only 13.7 seconds, shortest of any team. Against Miami’s zone, with plenty of Caleb Martin and Gabe Vincent – both as solid as ever – retreat-pressing full-court as they dropped back into their hybrid two-three, their possessions took 17 seconds – which would at the moment be by far the slowest attack.
Why is that important? Time is efficiency. The average NBA team scores 1.05 points per possession in the final six seconds of the shot clock. In the middle twelve, excluding the first six to eliminate fast breaks, they average 1.14 points per possession. That’s the difference between a Top 5 half-court offense and a Bottom 5 unit. Every second you steal from your opponent has real, tangible value.
“It just allows us to change the speed of the game,” Max Strus said of the zone, “especially with a team like [the Warriors] their offense is so fast it’s all ball movement and playing off us messing up switches or messing up defensive coverages. With [zone] it slows down their offense and makes them pass it around and shoot a lot of threes.”
Strus also mentions the flip side of this, which is that the Warriors *were* capitalizing on the HEAT messing up some defensive coverages. Against Miami’s man defense Golden State scored 1.20 points per possession, and that chasm has played out across the first nine games. In zone, the HEAT allow 0.73 points per possession. In man – and keep in mind these are half-court numbers – they’re allowing 1.03 points per with more than quadruple the total usage. That number, 1.03, is up from 0.95 last year and ranks No. 28 in the league as of Saturday morning. Miami’s overall half-court defense, per cleaningtheglass.com, sits at No. 18 after finishing No. 5 last season.
It’s still very early for all these numbers. The good news is that the zone, despite being used for years and teams knowing Spoelstra is going to get to it, is still plenty effective at draining clock, distorting offenses and reducing efficiency. But that coverage is always used best as a change of pace. The night after the Warriors game the Kings had no trouble with the zone because Domantas Sabonis was comfortable operating in the middle of it at the nail – just as Nikola Jokic has done in the past as did, in the Finals a few years back, Anthony Davis. The HEAT’s foundation is strong man-to-man defense and you can expect to hear about that as long as the numbers aren’t where they are expected to be.
Miami’s relationship with transition defense is interesting. Last year no team in the league allowed more transition opportunities in live rebound situations than the HEAT – 30.9 percent of opponent defensive rebounds turned into transitions – but that is the price you pay for having the second-highest crash rate in the league behind the Toronto Raptors.
This year they’re crashing the glass far less, No. 23 in the league, but still allowing all those transitions. Nearly 40 percent of opponent rebounds are resulting in breaks, per cleaningtheglass.com, which is by far the highest mark. Some of that is early season noise, and transitions are up across the league by a few possessions a game.
The good news is they’ve been pretty solid defending in those spots overall, allowing an Offensive Rating of 118.1 on the break, which ranks sixth. It’s still a lot of possessions that you’re never going to defend like you do in the halfcourt, but the way the team cleaned up their transition defense last weekend – down the line, starting with Spoelstra, everyone was talking about rebounding and break defense – headed into their win against Golden State was interesting. It wasn’t just that they weren’t getting back, it was that in trying to get back to the right guy they were getting back to the wrong guy.
“We just watched the film yesterday of our transition defense and coach made some great points about how we can get back and do things the right way, not just running to your specific matchup,” Kyle Lowry said after the Warriors game.
“We can’t run to our assigned man,” Adebayo said. “In transition you don’t have a man, you just run to the closest person next to you.”
That all tracks, and it certainly worked against a Warriors team that put up just five fast-break points. But here’s a theory. Is it possible that because the HEAT are defending so much in transition and thus having to (properly) pick up the ball and the open man wherever they are, that it messes with their switching defense in the sense that they aren’t starting possessions with the matchups they want to switch from. If Adebayo has to pick up a shooter in transition, for example, he might not get an opportunity to switch back onto a primary playmaker.
Consider these numbers. While Miami’s switching efficiency has rebounded after a slow start to allow 1.01 points-per-direct-screen – down from 0.95 last year, but not dramatically so given the sample size – there are some pretty stark splits depending on how their defensive possession begins. When the HEAT switch a pick-and-roll on a possession that starts with their opponent rebounding a miss, they’re allowing 1.16 points-per-screen, per Second Spectrum, on 50 screens. When they switch on a possession that started with their opponent taking the ball out of the net on a made shot or free throw, they’re allowing just 0.76 points-per-screen.
Some of that is just common sense. Almost all teams defend better off makes than misses. But last year this effect did not exist in Miami. Whether they were switching off rebounds or makes, they were pretty much always in the 0.95-0.98 range. That may speak to changes in personnel. It may speak to execution and communication, the latter of which Adebayo has brought up regularly this year. It may mean nothing at all given the lack of sample size, but Spoelstra didn’t exactly brush off the possibility that the transition defense, and the volume of it, is affecting their switching.
“It can,” Spoelstra said before the Warriors game. “Now if you’re doing things coherently and you’re body to body in transition, those decisions can happen a little bit more at a speed where you can assimilate it. Some of these decisions are happening so fast and we’re not fully back that you’re adding a degree of difficulty to it.”
Teams are always going to push the ball against the HEAT. The team is expecting that and they managed it well last year. But if the rate at which teams are running on Miami – coupled with a lower offensive rebound rate for the HEAT – is actually affecting the half-court switching, that’s something entirely new to keep an eye on.
-After shooting 26-of-26 against the Pacers and 20-of-20 against the Warriors, Miami has now shot 100 percent on 20+ free-throws in multiple games for the first time in franchise history.
-For as much as Miami has had their struggles defensively, at least relative to their own expectations since they’re still sitting about league average, they’re only allowing 106.6 points per 100 with Adebayo on the court. That would be a Top 5 defense in the league. It’s just that when he’s off the court the HEAT are allowing 116.8 per 100, which would rank No. 29.
-After Adebayo, care to guess who has the second greatest On/Off differential on the team? It’s Vincent, with whom the HEAT have been +10.6points per 100 when he’s playing versus when he’s sitting. Vincent’s shooting had been down until a 3-of-6 night in Indiana, but the percentages will normalize eventually and in the meantime he’s shown some craft inside the arc while clearly – in some fashion, even if we weigh early season differentials about as much as a feather – impacting the game.
-The most consistent item for Miami’s defense, year-over-year, is that they’re still forcing plenty of turnovers. Last year they finished No. 3 in opponent turnover percentage, and this year they’re at No. 4 despite an even higher number. And on the other side of that their own turnover rate is right at league average, a great sign considering starting a season with plenty of giveaways had almost become expected of the HEAT’s offense.