Coup's Notebook Vol. 5: HEAT At The Quarter Mile, Kyle Lowry's ATO's And Shooting Thoughts, Jimmy Butler's Semi-Oops And The Clutch Gods

Coup's Notebook Vol. 5
by Couper Moorhead
HEAT.com

We're 21 games into the season and the Miami HEAT are 13-8, tied for third in the Eastern Conference and sixth in the NBA despite one of the most road-heavy schedules anyone has played to date. Let's take stock of what their fundamentals look like at the quarter mark, including what being good does to your perception as a team, plus everything else we're noting and noticing:

A QUARTER MILE AT A TIME

There’s a funny thing that happens at either extreme of the NBA standings. If you’re down at the bottom, every positive is a burst of light at the end of the tunnel. Up at the top, any sign of weakness is a hand pulling you under the water. Coaches like to say that you’re never as good as you look when you’re rolling or as bad as you look in a slump, but you’re also not as bad as you look when you’re good or as good as you look when you’re bad. It makes sense. Trust me.

So 21 games in Miami is in this weird place where they have proven themselves to be very good with a shot at being great – as opposed to the last two years where they were mostly good with a shot at very good – which makes it look worse when they hit a snag because you start taking all the sunshine and gravy for granted.

Those snags are worth talking about. Ignore too many on the trail and next time you look down you’ll have a shirt full of holes. The halfcourt offense comes and goes – it sits No. 13 today, which is very slightly outside historical norms for an average Finals team – and as we’ll discuss later there are some fourth quarter concerns which stem from that. As the team has shifted more towards mismatch hunting and Tyler Herro shot creation they’ve lost some of their three-point game, including some odds slumps from proven shooters, and have a weird profile as a team that doesn’t generate many drives, still gets plety of paint touches thanks to their passing but rarely gets to the rim.

And yet the offense is No. 6 in the league. The addition of Kyle Lowry has added a transition dynamic the team had been lacking, Jimmy Butler is having an MVP-caliber season, Herro has taken a leap as a dependable bench scorer and Bam Adebayo enables everything they do on the defense end.

Granted, the man-to-man defense (1.07 ppp, Rank No .12) hasn’t been quite as stout after those first two weeks as Spoelstra has had to turn to zone (.941 ppp, Would Rank No. 1) more and more. Asked if the zone was covering up for man-to-man slippage Monday night, Lowry simply said, “Yeah.” Miami isn’t just allowing a ton of threes, they’re possibly allowing the most threes, as a percentage of total field-goals allowed (45 percent) than any team in NBA history. They do an excellent job of keeping the ball out of the paint with their switching and help, but they do lack rim protection when their defensive shell is broken.

And yet the defense is No. 10 in the league, as close to No. 4 as No. 12. And that’s after their worst Defensive Rating game of the season in allowing 130.4 points per 100 to Denver (without Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro). A couple good games and they’ll be back in the Top 5.

You see where we’re going with this.

We can point out as many flaws or weaknesses – some of which are by design to accentuate their strengths – and Miami still sits with the No. 4 Net Rating in the league (plus-5.3), one that would project them for 50 wins or better. That’s probably what they are, which is what they looked like before they ever took the court together. A 50-win team that has far more than your average championship capital given the experience on the roster. Whatever they look like today, they should be better than that come April and May with a diverse offensive menu and a defense ready-made for the postseason.

They aren’t a picture-perfect Top 30 team of all time that everyone expects to walk into the Conference Finals. Few teams are. But we know they’re very good. It’s just as important to remember that after a tough loss in late November as it will be come February and March when the schedule loosens up and the home games start rolling in.

THE FICKLE CLUTCH GODS

For good or ill, there’s a discussion we should probably have about Miami in the clutch.

We’ll preface this by saying clutch numbers, recorded in the last five minutes of games when the score is within five points, are the smallest of small sample sizes. They start tiny, stay small and only grow to become moderately useful in the last month or so of the season. That being said, this is what Miami’s clutch offense looks like the past three seasons:

2019-20: Rank 23
2020-21: Rank 30
2021-22: Rank 29

Doesn’t look great, does it? Certainly explains a few losses along the way, nights like against Washington ten days ago when the game clearly got away from Miami down the stretch, or the recent loss in Minnesota that just missed qualifying as a clutch game because the Wolves pulled away with such quickness.

Some explanations track. NBA teams switch more often in the last five minutes of close games, and that forces more isolations. Data supports this. On average, teams face switching and play in isolation late in games at rates that would rank in the Top 5 of either category over the course of the season. It’s a big jump, and for as much as Jimmy Butler is punishing mismatches this season (0.96 points-per-direct isolation) Miami has not typically been a one-on-one team. They move the ball and create advantages. They don’t run a 1-4 flat so guys can attack by themselves. As things slow down they can get taken out of their comfort zone.

(Ironically the HEAT are one of the best teams in the league against switch defenses this year, per Second Spectrum’s tracking. But if you dig into the video on those plays it’s clear that Miami is great at scoring against teams *trying* to switch, as in they’re often successful in causing defensive breakdowns and attacking with an advantage. So, the numbers are showing something different than their approach against clean switches.)

But then, consider the results portion of this, which is that Miami is 40-38 in these games over the same three years. Not because their defense has been dominant, though at times it has been, but clutch numbers are fickle. The clutch marker is only triggered once a game is within five points under five minutes. That means you can be up five when the clock passes five minutes, lose the next five minutes by four (and have poor clutch numbers for the night as a result) and still win. The two wins over Utah might ring a bell there.

It’s still a trend over the course of three years, if not for one outlier: The Bubble. In that postseason, Miami went 11-3 in clutch games with an Offensive Rating 135.4. Pure dominance on the road to the NBA Finals, fueled by a defense that created turnovers and Jimmy Butler owning every closing possession. That’s up to you and how you judge the overall weirdness of that period of everyone’s life.

However you look at it, this is not a team built to win pretty. It might look it when they’re trailing in Chicago and they suddenly pop off seven threes in seven minutes. Most nights, it’ll be a bit more of a grind, especially if one or more of their primary sources of shot creation is sitting on the bench. And that’s fine.

In the meantime, they’re a .500 team in the clutch, seemingly always and forever. Perfectly balanced, as all things should be.

CONTEXT IS KING

An odd thing happened with Miami’s offense last year. On paper, it appeared that it was significantly worse. Riding some incredible team-wide shooting, the 2019-20 squad finished the season ranked No. 7 on that end of the floor. After an ultra-short offseason, the 2020-21 group fell all the way down to No. 18. Precipitous drop, no?

Now this year they are back to No. 6. All is well again, right? It’s all a little less dramatic than it looks. Here are the HEAT’s actual Offensive Ratings (point scored per 100 possessions) over the past three seasons.

2019-20: 111.9
2020-21: 110.6
2021-22: 110.9

What’s really changed is the context around Miami’s offense. League offense, on average, spiked to an all-time high last year, jumping from 110.6 to 112.3. This year, league offense is down to an Offensive Rating of 108.2. We can speculate on the why being it all – short offseason, pandemic protocols creating unstable rotations, rule changes being enforced, a new ball – but it casts Miami’s offense in a slightly different light. Aside from a small dip after the first Jimmy Butler season, understandable as the league scouted and got a better read on Miami’s new mix, the HEAT’s offense has been pretty consistent once you adjust for context. It’s the Gone With The Wind, technically the highest grossing film of all time adjusted for inflation, of NBA offense. Or maybe Star Wars. Or Sound of Music. You get the point.

THE CHICAGO SPACE OUT

Everyone jumped to lump plaudits on Erik Spoelstra after Kyle Lowry iced the victory in Chicago with a layup off an inbounds in the final minute. Understandably so, as Spoelstra has drawn up plenty of brilliant plays over the years. But what really happened was less a designed play and more a sound setup with two players making the right bang-bang read.

The setup was all about space. Rather than crowd the floor and potential passing lanes with bodies, Spoelstra split up his four non-inbounders putting two in the backcourt and two up front. If you think a trap is coming, and not a quick foul, the easiest way to up the level of difficulty for the defense is to spread them out.

“The possession before, they weren’t fouling, they were trying to trap and create some turnovers, which is what they do,” Spoelstra said. “They’re very quick and do a great job getting deflections. We anticipated a possible trap.”

What happens from there isn’t complicated. Butler sets up like he’s going to screen for Gabe Vincent, then turns and goes up the floor. Anticipating the pass going to Butler, Lonzo Ball leaves the inbounder and goes to double. At this point, Chicago is toast.

With an entire frontcourt to work with, Vincent simply creates space for the catch and Lowry makes the right read. Keep your eye on Ball here as he realizes his mistake as soon as the ball goes Vincent’s way.

“That’s just a release,” Spoelstra said. “[Lowry] just read it great for the give-and-go.”

Drawing a distinction between a set play and a read doesn’t really matter, but sometimes all the X’s and O’s in the world don’t matter as much as simply putting your X’s in the right starting position on the board and letting them make the right call.

It’s also not the first time Miami has taken advantage of a trapping team in the closing moments. Here’s Andre Iguodala, two years ago, getting a dunk off the inbounds when Duncan Robinson drew the trap. Same setup, same spacing, slightly different process.

ONE THOUGHT

I still believe in Duncan Robinson. There’s just very little precedence for a shooter that had the seasons he had, with nearly the toughest shot quality in the league on threes, suddenly becoming a below-average shooter. There are slumps that have gone on longer than this, and again I’m more liable to believe something isn’t right physically if he’s still at 32.8 percent come 2022. But in the meantime, Kyle Lowry had some food for thought after Robinson’s 1-of-9 night against Denver.

“I know Duncan is a heck of a shooter,” Lowry said. “We all understood what he is and what he is doing and how he can get the ball off and how many shots he can make. I think right now we just have to, not necessarily keep feeding him and keep pushing him to keep going, but we have to find more opportunities for him to find more standstill threes and threes where defenders are not as close to him.

“Maybe we just let him play decoy a little bit and get him some shots, the easier ones. A lot of our offense is him moving and getting open and getting handoffs from Bam and getting shots off. Who knows, we may need to just, ‘Hey, single-side tag, someone help, you knock it down.’ Who knows, it’s not my decision, it’s just thoughts.”

TIDBITS

-The HEAT lead the league in charges taken, and it’s not close. The gap between No. 1 Miami (28) and No. 2 Brooklyn (18) is the same difference between Brooklyn and the No. 18 team, Dallas. It feels like it, too, as it seems as though every single player on the team outside of Bam Adebayo – more likely to go for a block – is liable to step up and take contact. But surprisingly, they aren’t doing it as much as you might think in a historical context. Adjusting for pace over the past nine seasons, the 2021-22 HEAT only rank No. 39 in charges taken per 100 possessions at 1.4. The 2018-19 Oklahoma City Thunder were the most charge-happy in that time frame at 2.4 per 100.

-Last week I posited on Twitter that Jimmy Butler would finish the season with the most non-dunk alley-oops in league history, so I decided to check. I was wrong, and right. Anthony Davis has the lead with 12 catch-and-shoot lobs, so to speak, but Butler’s seven leads all non-centers. Of the eight players with five non-dunk lobs or more this year, only Butler and Kevin Durant don’t man the middle of the floor.

-Butler had a better case for MVP last season than most realized, especially considering the fact that he didn’t even receive a single vote (likely because he missed a chunk of games). So far he has an even better case, but when we asked him how he feels about being the awards conversation, this is what he had to say:

“I don’t need none of that,” Butler said. “We need a championship here. That’s all I’m worried about. All those individual things, they can keep it.”

As sincere as Butler sounds about prioritizing a title, I do not think he’ll be returning the Maurice Podoloff Trophy should things go his way.

-Miami’s offense is currently plus-16.1 per 100 possessions when Dewayne Dedmon is on the floor, the sixth-highest mark in the entire league among players with at least 250 minutes. Dedmon has been excellent, but this is partially a marker for how good Miami’s bench units have been as the regular starters have so far posted an Offensive Rating of 105.1 (Would Rank No. 25). The starters have, of course, been excellent defensively.

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