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Coup's Notebook Vol. 15: Starting Stats, Jimmy Butler And Kyle Lowry Manipulating Mismatches, Handling The Post And Hidden Trade Details

The Miami HEAT are 36-20, No. 1 in the Eastern Conference with the fourth-best Net Rating in the league at +4.8. They’re currently on a four-game winning streak having beaten the Spurs, Hornets, Wizards and Pelicans to close out a long road trip. Here’s what we’ve been noting and noticing.

STARTER MANIPULATION

Let’s knock on the biggest oak tree we can find but the HEAT, for the moment aside from some minor injuries, appear to be mostly whole. That means we’re finally getting an extended look at the intended starting lineup that was clearly in place from the first game of the season but that has been together for just 18 of 56 games.

The good news is that they’re good. In 240 minutes with Kyle Lowry, Jimmy Butler, Duncan Robinson, P.J. Tucker and Bam Adebayo on the floor, the HEAT are +14.2 per 100 possessions with a Defensive Rating of 92.9 that would effectively be one of the best team marks in league history over an entire season. They routinely open up games with such cannonball energy, with defensive rules that take every opponent a shift to get used to only for opportunistic defenders to break those rules, that it’s common for the other team to have somewhere around eight points through the first six minutes. For a team that does its best work playing with an early lead, the starters are more than holding up their end of the bargain.

“I feel like it’s everything everybody expected,” Adebayo said of the starting unit. You get a guy like P.J. who is fierce on defense, hits corner shots and plays the right way, wants to get everybody involved. You have [Lowry] who’s facilitating, getting everybody involved. He’s not even taking very many shots a night, but he has so much impact, him and PJ. I feel like they fit perfectly for us.”

Early offense has been a bit of an issue at just 95.6 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter. There’s shooting noise in there from the first month when threes weren’t falling. Over the past four games since Lowry returned their first-quarter offense has been a much more palatable 109.1 per 100. It’s a group that plays offense differently. Robinson still flies around some Adebayo handoffs, but generally when Lowry is on the floor Adebayo’s assists go way down. Lowry handles the ball and he spends his time hunting mismatches for Miami’s two primary scorers (outside of Herro, coming off the bench).

Take this early possession from the game against the Pelicans which saw Butler relentlessly picking on the undersized Devonte’ Graham. Watch Lowry the entire time.

Jimmy and Kyle Mismatch Hunting

The Pelicans don’t switch when Robinson lifts up from the corner, so when Lowry gets the ball into Butler the matchup is Herb Jones – a rookie apparently on his way to being one of the league’s best defenders. Not good enough. Lowry goes to screen for Robinson, holding the screen against Graham in such a way to force the switch. Now they’ve got who they want. Butler goes to screen for Lowry. Another switch. Butler eats.

None of it may seem particularly complicated, but these are no easy reads to make in real-time when every second counts against you.

“There’s so many IQ nuances that Kyle can bring to the game,” Erik Spoelstra said. “He’s such an underrated screener, and this was really the actions that were happening tonight to get the matchups that we wanted. Either he was handling and Jimmy was setting the screen to be able to force the switch, or vice versa. Either way he’s able to manipulate situations so we can get some kind of advantage against the defense.”

Spacing won’t ever be picture-perfect with this group, not with two players who don’t shoot many threes, but they’re working around it. The more you can work mismatches in the post, the tougher it is for defenders to load up against you without getting into rotation. In Lowry, the HEAT have one of the best at working those mismatches. If the defense is as good as has been advertised, clever halfcourt manipulation, alongside the early shooting that seems to be there 90 percent of the time, should be enough to keep the differential on the positive side.

Better yet, the starters have been dominant after the break as they’ve scored 120.3 points per 100 in their 108 third-quarter minutes. Over the last four games since Lowry returned – albeit against some weaker defensive units – they’ve scored 119.2 points per 100 for a +52.6 Net Rating.

If you’re one to operate under the theory that the best teams in the league are the ones that dominate the third – make your halftime adjustments and make the first strike – then you’ll be glad to hear that Miami is the No. 4 third-quarter team in the league at +7.9 per 100.

DOUBLE THE FUN

Part of any defensive scheme is knowing how opposing teams are going to try to attack you and having your counters ready to go. It’s no secret that the HEAT switch a ton when Adebayo is on the floor. You know it. Every opponent knows it. Teams don’t really want to be drawing Adebayo on the switch and attacking him one-on-one at 20 feet. It’ll happen against a short shot clock or when a younger player needs to learn The Lesson about Adebayo, but what the smart teams are doing when running that early screen at Adebayo is playing chess, moving him around to try and open up the rest of the floor.

Sometimes that means drawing Adebayo out to one side of the paint to better setup an action on the weakside. In the Pelicans’ case, that meant pulling Adebayo out on a switch to get Jones Valanciunas on a smaller player in the post. Nothing new for Miami. This is basic stuff. For years, Spoelstra teams have simply fronted the post with a smaller player and brought help along the baseline.

You’ll notice the double immediately in this possession. What I want you to do is not watch it. Keep your eyes on Lowry and Butler.

Bam Switch, Post Double On Valanciunas

Lowry knows exactly how this is supposed to unfold. He points for Robinson to make his help rotation, then manages the two weakside players, stepping in front of Jones’ cut as Butler pinches in to do the same. Now watch Butler. Valanciunas makes the only pass available to him and Butler retreats to the shooter, Graham, as the ball closes in on one-pass-away territory.

If you pause the play right when Ingram catches the ball, CJ McCollum is wide open. Lowry has to hold on Jones for a beat while he waits for Robinson to recover. So Butler, knowing that there’s a shooter to his back, watches Ingram’s eyes. The second Ingram threatens to make that skip pass, Butler jumps up into the passing lane. By the time Butler lands on his feet, Lowry and Robinson have recovered. Other teams probably have Jones set a hammer screen for McCollum and move the ball quicker, but this is why the HEAT can be so aggressive with their doubles when they need to. They have some of the best helpside defenders in the league.

And that’s how you end up with a player trying to attack Adebayo – No. 8 in isolations defended per 100 possessions at 6.4 – with no movement left.

Miami has sent 78 post doubles this season, fifth-most in the league, and have allowed just 0.81 points-per-possession when doing so. If the HEAT end up playing the newly-formed James Harden-Joel Embiid combo in a postseason series, remember this.

A SMALL TRADE, TO BE SURE, BUT A SIGNIFICANT ONE

You may have missed it during all the league commotion, but the HEAT did make a trade before Thursday’s trade deadline. They sent KZ Okpala – a talented forward but one who had mostly found himself out of the rotation – to the Oklahoma City Thunder for a 2026 second round pick. Considering Miami didn’t have any second-round picks left until 2028 – they’ve never been shy about trading picks to build a winner, and that’s exactly what they’ve done – adding another one always helps. It will be the lessor second-rounder of Oklahoma City, Dallas or Philadelphia, so it may not exactly be a high pick but it’s usable in a future trade should they choose to do so.

That second-rounder isn’t where the real value of this deal resides. There are two aspects to this.

First, in not taking back another player and trading Okpala into Oklahoma City’s cap space, the HEAT opened up both a roster spot and a salary slot. Without getting into the exact dollar amounts, that means Miami now has financial – staying below the luxury tax line – and logistical room to open the possibility of converting Caleb Martin to a regular contract, making him postseason eligible in the process, and sign another free agent in the coming weeks if one they like becomes available.

Secondly, as part of the trade the HEAT and Thunder amended the protections on a HEAT first-round pick the Thunder already owned. Previously, that pick had protections on it running from 2023 all the way through 2026 (when it became unprotected). Because of those protections, the HEAT were prevented from trading any picks during that span due to the Stepien Rule, which prevents teams from trading first-rounders in consecutive years. With that pick now guaranteed not to convey until at least 2025 (protected 1-4, then unprotected in 2026), Miami is now able to trade either their 2022 or 2023 first-rounder – or both, in a roundabout way if done during the draft. In short, they freed an asset up from red tape and can now use it for an offseason upgrade if there’s a move they want to make.

If you find yourself asking why the Thunder would want to do this, it’s probably a win-win on their part. We can only guess as to the thinking, but with Oklahoma City owning approximately 270 picks over the next six years thanks to a variety of trades it’s in their best interest to kick the can down the road as much as they can. Draft picks are incredibly useful as trade assets, but if you acquire too many and are left to actually use them on players in a draft, you can run out of functional roster space to use them all. Miami’s guaranteed asset now is the Thunder’s guaranteed asset later.

TIDBITS

-Considering we spent about six weeks talking about Miami’s spiking three-point frequency, it’s only fair we take a look at where it has been since the team got healthier. From Jan. 16 on, when Adebayo returned to the lineup, 37.6 percent of the HEAT’s total field-goal attempts have come from three, No. 13 in the league during that stretch and well below the 42-44 percent mark they hovered around for most of December. There are still plenty of shooters who can catch fire on any given night, but the offense is back to being as balanced as it was through the first six weeks.

-Erik Spoelstra was named one of the Top 15 Coaches in NBA History this week, joining Pat Riley who was previously named to the Top 10 back when the league put out a list in 1996. We’ve already been over the various accolades, but as we’ve mentioned time and again, if you’re arguing that Spoelstra isn’t a Hall of Famer at this point – today, not in a few years – then you’re fighting a losing battle.

-Aside from Spoelstra and his staff coaching Team Durant – a roster that will include Joel Embiid, Ja Morant, Jayson Tatum, Trae Young and Andrew Wiggins as starters, along with Devin Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine, Dejounte Murray, Khris Middleton, LaMelo Ball and Rudy Gobert – Jimmy Butler will be Miami’s lone All-Star participant. Butler was drafted to Team LeBron Thursday night. Makes for a lighter weekend of HEAT festivities than we’ve seen in some recent years, but a little rest and relaxation was never bad for anyone, especially these days. After playing at Charlotte on Feb 17 this week, Miami doesn’t play again until the following Friday, the 25th, at New York.