The Miami HEAT are 50-28, No. 1 in the Eastern Conference with the No. 6 Net Rating at plus-4.3. There are four games remaining in the regular season. Here is what we’ve been noting and noticing.
THE NEW OLD LOOK
Following a rough four-loss week that culminated in a loss to the Brooklyn Nets, Erik Spoelstra made some significant changes to Miami’s rotation.
The first, most obvious and most significant move was Max Strus replacing Duncan Robinson in the starting lineup alongside Kyle Lowry, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and P.J. Tucker. We should start by saying that the previous starting lineup, which had been a mainstay for the past three seasons as the four man changed depending on who was on the roster, was working. Statistically, at least. Even with Lowry and Robinson slumping from three through the first month of the season while all five players were healthy and available, that group was +12.5 per 100 possessions in over 400 minutes with average offense and elite defense. They were even better after halftime than before, which hadn’t always been the case for a HEAT team that in the past relied heavily on good first-quarter starts.
Before Monday’s win over Sacramento, Strus had only played 13 minutes all season with the other four. Good minutes, +12.8 per 100 with great offense and sub-average defense, but still only 13. You can narrow the scope to four, three and two-man groupings to expand the sample size, but generally it wasn’t as though there was a hidden lineup with amazing numbers lurking in the shadows.
Strus is similar to Robinson, too. Not a carbon copy. There’s a little more natural off-the-bounce to Strus’ game – though Robinson had improved there. Robinson is taller and longer, which often leads to fouls he might not always deserve, while Strus has more compact strength. But ultimately both were being used as movement shooters and handoff partners for Adebayo, where some of Miami’s most important offense comes from as teams will often commit two defenders to stopping the shooter, thus opening up the floor for Adebayo to get his Draymond Green on.
The two lineups may well end up having differing levels of success on either end of the floor, but when asked if he expect the groups to actually function, to operate, differently, this is what Spoelstra had to say.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “I want to be open to it. They are different players so I want to be open to the possibilities of how it can look different. They are both very important to our team. I think it’s easy just to put them in the same box. They’re not. I just think at this time this made sense.”
So why make the change? It was likely more about the entire rotation. One of Miami’s main issues this season, even when the wins were rolling in and the vibes were at their peak, has been a late-game offense (No. 27 in the league) that can get bogged down in the mucky muck. Robinson – whose minutes are down about six per game this week – wasn’t closing games. As we saw against Boston – which the team ultimately won with defense more than offense down the stretch – Spoelstra at least wants to see if they can finish games with Strus and Tyler Herro both on the court. Maximum spacing, and all that that entails. With Strus starting, you have to do fewer contortions with the rest of your rotations to get to the target groups.
“This wasn’t a one move thing,” Spoelstra said.
The other important layer to that is Miami closed the game against Boston with Butler at the four spot next to Adebayo. In 127 minutes this season with Butler next to Adebayo or Dedmon as the four, the HEAT have an Offensive Rating of 111.9 and Defensive Rating of 108.1. Adding in true small-ball lineups with Butler next to Tucker raises both number, Offense up to 117.0 and Defense to 118.5.
As for the rest of the rotation, it filled in around the Strus-Robinson swap. Since Strus was only playing off and on during the short period that the team was fully healthy once Victor Oladipo and Markieff Morris returned from injury, starting him and keeping Robinson in the rotation meant fewer guard minutes – especially with Gabe Vincent having done all he could do to prove himself worthy of regular shifts. Along with Butler playing more at the four, that meant there simply weren’t minutes available for the two veterans. And with Caleb Martin available against Chicago he didn’t play either, only making the emphasis on Butler and Tucker sharing the four-spot all the more clear. For all intents and purposes Spoelstra has shrunk things down to a nine-man, postseason-caliber rotation.
“These are tough decisions,” Spoelstra said after the Sacramento game. “There’s a lot of different things that could work. We just felt that at this time, these moves may clean up some things with the rotation. Those aren’t easy things. We all just have to have empathy and grace for some of these changes for guys who didn’t necessarily play tonight. And an understanding that we have a roster full of proven, capable guys.”
“It’s more about where is the ball going and what is our spacing,” he added Saturday night.
There’s some hesitancy to dive too deep into the rotational changes for a couple of reasons. For starters, it’s only a handful of games we’re talking about. Trying to get and keep more shooting on the floor makes practical sense, but the math hasn’t changed over the past three years which is that adding shooting tends to juice the offense – though the Shot Quality against Boston wound up being the fourth-lowest mark of the season – and make some sacrifices on the defensive end despite the positive results in Boston and Chicago.
Through three games this week, the new starting lineup is plus-8.9 per 100 possessions, with an Offensive Rating 132.9 and Defensive Rating of 124.1.
Second, there’s only a few games even left to play, and we all know how Spoelstra is going to handle the playoffs.
“A lot of this is going to be matchup based,” he offered as a reminder.
Every little granular adjustment Spoelstra made this week, who comes out when and which two or three guys play more or less together, might be rendered moot in less than 10 days.
Let’s get back to the starter swap for a moment. This is merely pontification, but the guess would be that Spoelstra knows exactly how valuable Robinson is to his offense. The attention that opponents devote to him in their gameplans doesn’t happen by accident. Miami needs as many ways to create advantages as they can muster, and Robinson at his best helps do that. But in Strus they also had one of the greatest luxuries in the league, a player shooting over 40 percent from three at such a high volume (over six attempts a night) in limited minutes it put him in rarified company – similar company to what Robinson had put himself into over the past two seasons. Shooting greases Miami’s wheels, and they need as much grease as they can get while jolting themselves out of what was a pretty awful four-loss week.
When we get to the postseason, we’ll see what sticks.
THE SQUEEZE COVERAGE
As you’re probably well aware by now, the HEAT run a switching-dominant defensive system. Only the Celtics switch more than them, and nobody switches more often than Bam Adebayo. When it comes to drop coverage, just three teams run that conservative coverage less than Miami. With Adebayo on the court, Miami runs drop slightly more often than 13 picks per 100 possessions. The team that uses drop the least, Portland, does so at a rate of 19 screens per 100 possessions.
This all tracks. Erik Spoelstra generally chooses to weaponize Adebayo’s generational combination of size and agility by having him blow up opposing actions before they get anywhere near the paint. Keeping Adebayo in the paint, where for all his gifts he’s still an undersized center at 6-foot-9, is a more passive look than Miami typically wants to show.
And yet, they’ll still do it when the situations calls for it. They just do it in their own way. Two of Miami’s four games with the highest drop usage (37 and 38 possessions) came against the Phoenix Suns and DeAndre Ayton, who can be troublesome because of how quickly he can catch and finish even when the dunk isn’t available. Earlier this week, the HEAT used drop a season-high 40 times against Sacramento.
Here’s what it looked like at the point of the screen:
Anything seem different to you?
Part of the reason most teams play drop is that it allows them to cover the pick-and-roll with two defenders – at least up front, as they’ll often need to bring in backline help to chuck a rolling lob threat – keeping size in the paint to deter any drive. Those teams can then stay home on shooters and limit opposing catch-and-shoot threes. That was the idea behind the elite 2010-11 Chicago Bulls defense. Two in the pick-and-roll, cut off the passing lanes. Plenty of teams have used variations in the years since.
The HEAT’s entire system is designed to prevent paint touches. Even though the drop is meant to concede a pocket of space, the HEAT are bringing a third player into the fray whenever their spacing allows for it. The ballhandler expects to have space coming off the pick, but it’s really a trap. If you attack that pocket, the HEAT can squeeze the sides like a Pedialyte popsicle until you have nowhere to go but back out the top.
This is what it looked like in motion:
Sacramento still scored well against this coverage because they hit some pull-up jumpers at the pocket opening, or otherwise hit threes skipping a pass over the top of the help. But they only got 20 paint touches, 13 in the first three periods while the game was still mildly competitive. Mission accomplished for Miami.
Miami’s defense is a system of applied pressure, constantly pushing you off your spots and out of your comfort zone. Drop coverage, which concedes space for a ballhandler to attack, is not a natural fit for how they want to defense. But there’s no one size fits all for each little piece of defensive terminology. The HEAT find ways to make things their own.
-Tim Hardaway has been selected to be a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2022. We’ll have more on him when the induction takes place next September, but I recommend you look up the UTEP Two Step. The man was an innovator, and it wasn’t all that long ago – at least for anyone of a particular age – that everyone was trying to dribble like Hardaway.
-With their 50th win, this is the 10th season in franchise history hitting that mark, and fourth under Erik Spoelstra (who might have two more were it not for one lockout-shortened season and another abbreviated by a pandemic).
-Just a thought, but when watching Boston and how they defend does anyone else get the sense that some of those guys are never going to forget Tyler Herro’s 37-point game against them? Celtics have a great defense in general, but they have been particularly precise when it comes to Herro.
-Against the Top 10 Offenses in the league, the HEAT have the No. 1 defense at 108.6 per 100 possessions. Against the Top 10 Defenses in the league, the HEAT have the No. 20 offense at 108.8. Messy season for numbers like those with all the health and safety protocols, but that dichotomy passes the smell test. Miami can win some playoff games with their shotmaking – Herro and Lowry off the dribble are going to be massively important – but it’s their defense that’s going to carry a possibly lengthy run.