The Miami HEAT are 19-18, No. 7 in the Eastern Conference with a Net Rating of -0.8, No. 19 in the league. They are No. 8 on Defense, No. 24 on Offense, and have played 25 clutch games, more than anyone else. Here’s what we’ve been noting and noticing.
FIRST-TEAM ALL TURNOVER
Over the past two seasons, only the Toronto Raptors have forced more turnovers than the HEAT, with Miami also ranked No. 2 in opponent turnover percentage this season. Because of that, they’ve clawed their way back up to No. 8 in Defensive Rating despite being No. 22 in half-court man-to-man as tracked by Second Spectrum. In other words, the HEAT’s ability to force turnovers – which has the side effect of giving Miami more shots on goal – has been a major driving force for their ability to hang around the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference while their offense finds its way.
We could just leave it at that, which is often as far as it goes when talking about turnovers, but it’s worth digging in even further for something so critical to Miami’s success. How do we better show the importance of a very particular section of defensive aptitude?
Let’s try this. First, we’ll look at the half-court coverage, which is ranked No. 8 by Second Spectrum allowing 1.10 points per possession. Now, obviously we know that a turnover, by the very definition, is going to produce 0.00 ppp because it marks the end of a possession. You lose the ball, you don’t get any points.
What about all the other plays? You can’t steal the ball every time down the court no matter how good you are at it. Well, if you take out turnovers and focus strictly on half-court possessions that end in a field-goal attempt or foul – the only other ways a possession can end – then every team in the league is going to see their defensive efficiency balloon. Miami’s, for example, jumps up to 1.30 ppp, but even the top mark, Milwaukee, is 1.21. Remove the best possible result for a defense, of course the numbers aren’t going to look as good.
It’s not the number, then, it’s the ranking. Without turnovers, Miami’s half-court defense falls down to No. 24 in the league. It’s an even steeper drop with the Raptors, going all the way from No. 10 to No. 27.
You might be wondering if the same thing happened last year, when the HEAT were No. 3 in opponent turnover rate, and the answer is only barely. Miami was No. 4 in half-court defense overall that season, and they only dropped to No. 8 when removing turnovers.
There are a few theories we could try out with this, some that would require watching more film to get real answers for. For one, teams are currently shooting 36.9 percent from three against the HEAT, third highest in the league. That’s not as bad as it seems, though, as they’re closer to the seventh-lowest percentage allowed than the highest. Miami was switching more often last year, forcing more isolations and keeping the ball in front of them. That may change the type of turnovers being forced, and in that line of thinking the HEAT are forcing about one more steal – a live-ball turnover – per game than last year. In that sense, Miami may be chasing more boom-or-bust turnovers, that sort that you can quickly turn into points to juice your offense but also the type that can cost you if you miss a pass. Different coverages, more drop in pick-and-roll and more zone, means teams just have more space to play with and thus more recourse to get a decent shot up when they don’t give up the ball.
But wait, if you look back at the Boston series, the same effect is there again. Miami held the Celtics to 1.09 points per half-court possession in that seven-game set, which would have been a Top 10 mark during the regular season. Without turnovers, their number drops to 1.29, which also would have been No. 25 over 82 games. And there was plenty of switching in that series.
In the end, the why or how might not be as important here. The what is that turnovers are hugely important to this iteration of the HEAT. If you’re following along with a game at home, that column might be the first one you want to check in a box-score.
THE FEET-FIRST COVERAGE OF NIKOLA JOKIC
This one is just funny. I’m not the first to notice the two-time MVP doing this nor will I be the last, but in the context of Miami’s pick-and-roll game – as prominent this season within their repertoire as it has been in four years – and how often they’ve relied on slipping pocket passes to Bam Adebayo against drop coverage, it had me chuckling watching Jokic keep kicking out his feet to get in the way.
These are just the instances that I caught live:
Notebook 38: Jokic Kicks Out
Jokic is infamous for ranking highly in many of the advanced defensive metrics despite being neither a shotblocker nor a particularly agile perimeter defender. What he is, however, is very smart with great hands – he disrupted Adebayo’s rhythm in the paint on multiple occasions Friday night – and, seemingly, kung-fu feet.
With so many moving pieces in Miami’s rotation this season, and on their injury report, we’ve had plenty of opportunities to see how the HEAT change their offensive approach when they’re missing their primary engines in Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler. And the gist of it is, basically, take more threes. Which is only logical. Butler and Adebayo are Miami’s most consistent sources of toward-the-rim offense, and when you take one of them out of the equation the best way to compensate is to play the variance game and pump up the threes.
Kyle Lowry has been pretty outspoken about this effect ever since last December, when the HEAT survived the month without Adebayo by shooting 40 percent from three on 38 attempts per game. In that season, Miami attempted about 35 threes per 100 possessions (on 37 percent shooting) when both Adebayo and Butler played in the game, and 44 threes per 100 when neither of them played (over 768 minutes) – shooting better than 41 percent.
The same has been true this season. When both Adebayo and Butler play, per pbpstats.com, the HEAT attempt 35 threes per 100 possessions. In the two games when neither of them were available, Miami took 45 threes per 100. And when just one of them couldn’t go, the attempt rate has been 39 per 100.
The difference has been the conversion rate. When either one of Miami’s two All-Stars was not in uniform last year, the team still had an Offensive Rating over 113 thanks to above-average to out-of-this-world shooting. This year that number has dropped to 110.3. Even when both have been able to play, if one of them was off the court resting last year Miami’s Offensive Rating approached 120. This year? Just 110.8. Much of that is the drop in shooting, but we should also consider that teams are now just as familiar with how the HEAT try to give themselves a little boost.
“When we have guys out, it’s just by any means necessary,” Spoelstra said. “When other teams know that we’re just kind of tapping into one specific part of the menu, it becomes easier to defend.”
Spoelstra generally never talks about this without also mentioning how important is it to maintain a balance between threes and paint touches, and over the past few weeks that balance has what has encouraged him about the offense moving forward despite the team’s offensive rating sitting No. 29 in December.
THE GIANT KILLER
If it seems like Gabe Vincent is pretty good in the paint, especially around shotblockers, it’s because he is. Over the past two seasons, Vincent, listed at 6-foot-2, is shooting just a tick over 50 percent on 115 shots in the 3-to-10-foot zone. While he’s often tracked as a shooting guard by the cameras because of the lineups he plays in and players he defends, Vincent is certainly sized like a point guard and among other players logged as point guards by Second Spectrum that 50 percent mark would be good for No. 8 among qualified players. Kyrie Irving leads that particular group at 59 percent from 3-to-10 feet.
In his return to action this week against Minnesota, Vincent was more than happy to Pac-man up the space afforded to him by Gobert dropping deep back to the rim. He didn’t make every shot, but a little paint-attacking burst in the fourth quarter stretched out Miami’s lead just enough to help them hold the Wolves off in what became yet another clutch game.
Notebook 38: Giant Killer Gabe
After that game Vincent said he’s good at those shots because he’s been “small all my life”, and thus has had to find ways to survive among the redwood trees.
“You have to have a little bit of a feel and touch for those shots,” Spoelstra says. “He works on them all the time, but there’s a lot of guys who work on them as well and they still don’t have the necessary feel and spatial awareness of where the shotblocker may be, and the timing to get off those shots. But if you watch him work after practice, and he’s constantly working on different kind of finishes off either foot, with either hand, and from different ranges inside that circle.”
-With his wild, one-legged, running game winner in Utah last night, Tyler Herro now has three shots to take the lead in the last 10 seconds of a win this season. That ties him with Dwyane Wade (2011-12) and Eddie Jones (2001-02) for most in a single season for the HEAT franchise. Wade of course has 12 of those shots in the regular season, but Herro is now tied with Tim Hardaway with five for second-most in franchise history. At the rate the HEAT are playing these clutch games, we might as well see a few more.
-Orlando Robinson continues to give Miami good minutes at backup center. Nothing spectacular, but Spoelstra has given him credit for playing hard and finding ways to be in the right place whether by rolling to the rim or fighting on the offense glass. No small part of that success is due to having guards like Kyle Lowry – who also helped guide Omer Yurtseven to success last season – around, and Lowry had this to say about his role in helping another young player along:
“My job is to make these guys get easy looks, easy shots, feel comfortable out there, and try to be able to support their family and get contracts.”
It’s a business at the end of the day, and it’s always refreshing to hear a veteran speak to the roles they play in the livelihood of young, unproven players.
-Duncan Robinson is now the franchise all-time leader in three pointers made. You probably knew that. What’s interesting going forward is how quickly the record will be broken once Robinson is said and done. Three-point rates are only increasing, even if the rate has slowed a bit, and it’s entirely possible another HEAT player could break Robinson’s final mark within a few years. Across the league, any three-point records based on volume feel like they are being made to be topped.
-Miami has played 12 games this season decided by three points or less. That's already more than they've played in any of the previous three seasons, with 2019-20 coming out with the most at 10.
-Victor Oladipo’s dunk on Walker Kessler was his first dunk of the season. In Bam Adebayo’s words after the game, “Man, he dunked on that man.”