Coup's Notebook Vol. 13: Miami's Not-So-Secret Formula, Duncan Robinson Never Left, All-Stars And Triple-Doubles

Notebook Vol. 13
by Couper Moorhead
HEAT.com

The Miami HEAT are 31-17, No. 1 in the Eastern Conference with the No. 5 Net Rating in the NBA at +4.9. Here’s what we’ve been noting and noticing.

THE FORMULA

You’ve probably noticed it without noticing it, but the HEAT have a formula.

The first quarter is all about shock and awe. Their unique and unorthodox defense, with switchers that yield no advantage and help from directions you aren’t expecting help and all sorts of bodies constantly in your way, hits teams like a brick in the face. In the first six minutes of the first quarter, the HEAT allow just 101.5 points per 100 possessions – a number that would rank as the No. 1 defense in the NBA for a full season. Some teams adjust better than others from there, but unless the threes are falling teams almost universally have an early-game moment or two where the ball isn’t moving anywhere but East-West, the primary and secondary actions have been blown up and players are all standing around looking at each other as if to say, ‘Wait, now what?’

Awe comes from the offense, as Duncan Robinson flies around Bam Adebayo handoffs or Kyle Lowry tosses a fifty-foot hit-ahead to Jimmy Butler posting up a point guard who forgot to swap get-back responsibilities with a wing or apparent-best-shooter-in-the-league P.J. Tucker waits in the weakside corner ready to make a defender slump his shoulders when he turns and see who is about to shoot. In those first six minutes, the HEAT score 111.6 points per 100 possessions, meaning they’re plus-10.1 during that stretch. Since Adebayo returned to the lineup, they’re at 125.0 points per 100.

Some nights more threes fall than others, some nights Butler grabs more early steals than others or Adebayo gets more runway to sky for lobs, but the result is the same more often than not. Miami leads. In 26 of their 48 games, they’ve led after the first. They’ve won 21 of those. Of the 13 games in which they’ve led by 10 or more after the opening period, they’ve won 12. They’re the No. 4 first-quarter offense overall, and since December 1 – when Adebayo went down and the team increased their three-point volume – they’re a league-best 42.8 percent from deep in the first 12 minutes.

From there, they ride the defense and their energy. The offense doesn’t always sustain, but this is a team that leads from the front even if they have given up some fourth-quarter runs based largely – the Lakers game aside when LeBron James and Russell Westbrook well full brute-force mode – on the threes they allow. When they play from behind, losing the first quarter by five or more points, they’re 4-7.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is exactly what the formula was two years ago. During that magical season, Miami had a Net Rating of plus-12.7 – plus-17.3 at home – as they shot 41.6 from three in opening quarters.

The difference this year is that the HEAT aren’t only a first-quarter team. In 2019-20, they were -1.2 per 100 in third quarters and -5.8 per 100 in they fourth. They had no trouble gaining leads. Holding on to an advantage was of much greater concern, which is part of the reason why their sudden self-discovery of second-half dominance during the NBA Finals run was so impressive.

This season? They’re +3.7 Net in the third and +6.0 Net in the fourth. Still stronger at the open, but far sturdier at the close (though the clutch offensive numbers still leave something to be desired, small sample size and all). The formula may be the same, but the current version of the HEAT is better equipped to consistently take advantage of it.

DUNCAN ROBINSON IS WHO WE THOUGHT HE WAS

For all that first-quarter goodness, Duncan Robinson wasn’t even doing Duncan Robinson things through the first six weeks of the season.

Two years ago, during what was one of the best volume shooting seasons in the history of the league, Robinson shot an absurd 53.3 percent from three in first quarters. “Duncan Robinson hit his first three” was the tweet, and it was tweeted just about every game.

Through the first six weeks of this season, Robinson was down to 33.8 percent in the first 12. Since then, he’s back to 45.7 percent. Miami’s first quarters are often an ‘If X, Then Y’ event, with X being Robinson making all of his early threes and Y being Miami gains an early lead.

Robinson’s resurgence – or positive regression to his own mean, which is what it mostly is – has been about more than the first shift. He’s raised his overall line to 36.6 from three after hovering around the NBA’s Mendoza Line (30 percent) for those opening weeks, and since Dec. 1 he’s hitting 40.3 percent on 8.2 attempts per game – essentially the same season he had the last two years, performances that put him in the conversation, statistically at least, with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson as far as volume shooting.

It helps that Adebayo is back so he and Robinson can get back to their usual handoff chemistry. Even with Robinson’s early struggles and Adebayo having the ball in has less as a playmaker with the arrival of Kyle Lowry, the pair are No. 11 among all handoff combinations used at least 50 times at 1.15 points-per-handoff.

Since Adebayo returned, those two are producing 1.75 points-per-handoff in the first six minutes of games (1.52 overall).

And here’s the thing. Even though Robinson isn’t back to his usual level for the full season, his metrics are all higher than last season. Win Shares per 48 minutes. Estimated Plus/Minus. 538’s RAPTOR. Wherever you want to look, his overall impact numbers are at least as good as they were before. He’s turning the ball over less, making more plays off the dribble, and teams have never stopped defending him like one of the league’s deadliest shooters.

Can Duncan Robinson be back if Duncan Robinson never left?

TIDBITS

-Jimmy Butler is putting up a line of 21 points, six rebounds, six assists and 1.9 steals per game. Coupled with his 59.2 true-shooting percentage, he’s having a season that only Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, LeBron James and James Harden have done before. Well, Butler also did it last season. Pretty good company. Butler should be an All-Star lock, and well on his way to an All-NBA team as long as he plays in enough games.

-Butler also recently broke LeBron James’ franchise record for regular-season triple-doubles, recording his tenth in the final moments against the Los Angeles Lakers last week. James still has the lead, 14 to 13, if you add in postseason accomplishments, but Butler will break that sooner or later. While Butler broke the record in far fewer games than James, the pace of the professional game is so much higher and offense has exploded to such a degree that it’s not much of a surprise. Triple doubles, even excusing Russell Westbrook’s run with Oklahoma City, are far more prevalent today.

-This reminds me of one of my favorite numbers from the James era. In those four years with Miami, James had 26 regular season games where he was within two rebounds or assists of a triple double. Far and away the most in the league during that stretch. If you add in his previous Cleveland years, he was well over 100 almost-triple-doubles to that point in his career.

Since being drafted in 2003, James has 158 almost triple-doubles. Westbrook has 193 total triple-doubles since entering the league in 2009, which makes sense given that he averaged one in three separate seasons.

-If the HEAT have the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference at the end of the slate of games on February 5, Erik Spoelstra and his staff will be headed to Cleveland as All-Star coaches. Spoelstra has previously been an All-Star coach once in his career, back in 2013. In the modern era, Pat Riley has been to the most All-Star games as a coach, going nine times – this was before the rule was instituted preventing a coach from going to All-Star in consecutive seasons.

-In five games replacing Kyle Lowry (who has been out for personal reasons) alongside Miami’s usual starting group of Robinson, Butler, Tucker and Adebayo, Gabe Vincent is averaging 12 points and five assists in 33 minutes a game while shooting 38 percent from three. He’s been good all year but deserves an extra mention for turning himself into the type of player who can slide into the starting group without anyone missing a beat considering the context of all the first-quarter numbers we discussed earlier.

-The HEAT are 18-1 when shooting 40 percent from three. That one loss was to the Golden State Warriors by seven points.

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