Sometimes it’s a little too easy to hold teams to the same standard as the HEAT.
Every season the HEAT, like all teams, have to deal with something. Usually it’s injuries. Sometimes it’s a tough road schedule or a weird losing streak or a personnel disagreement. For the past two years, you can stack health and safety protocols on top of all that. And every season the HEAT, unlike all teams, figure out a way to figure it out. They win the games they’re not supposed to win. They respond to adversity. They overachieve, at least relative to the circumstances that they’re dealt.
Sure, there’s still a degree of surprise when they manage to knock off a contending team on a Wednesday in December with two All-Stars in street clothes, but every win that like eventually gets tossed onto a pile of wins like that. It’s what they do.
The problem comes when holding every team in the league to the same bar. Responding to what another team is dealing with by saying, ‘But look at what the HEAT had to deal with’ is on one hand fair, but on the other it serves to cheapen legitimate qualms another team may have had within their own context. And when you fail to hold a team to their own standard, you might miss what makes them good.
The Atlanta Hawks did not suffer any season ending injuries to their core players. They got 76 games out of Trae Young, which is far more than the HEAT can say of their stars. They dealt with protocols same as anyone else, with 24 players appearing in at least two contests. They did have three important pieces in John Collins – still out, as of this writing – Oknyeka Okongwu and De’Andre Hunter all miss around 30 games this season. In Miami’s context, that might seem like no big deal. For Atlanta, without the same depth of talent, it was a problem. Coming off a run to the Eastern Conference Finals, a 43-39 season for Atlanta may be disappointing. It may seem like they were perpetually unable to put things together while missing pieces that, to other teams, may seem replicable if not replaceable.
The secret is, underneath all the red flags in their season, Atlanta was actually pretty good. Certainly better than a team that had to win two games to get into the postseason should be. Better than a team that started 17-25 with a negative point differential. If we use the arbitrary end point of January 17 – almost exactly midway through the season and right around when Hunter and Okongwu were getting back into the fold – which started a seven-game winning streak, then Atlanta finished out the year with the fourth-best Net Rating in the league at +4.7. That trailed only Boston, Memphis and Phoenix, and was a decimal point ahead of the HEAT.
We can take it a step further. While we don’t mean to pick on him, as he’s partially a marker for Atlanta’s injury and protocols-plagued lineups before he was traded to New York in mid-January, but Cam Reddish had the second-worst on-off court differential of any player in the league this season among those who played at least 700 minutes. When he was on the court, Atlanta was -11.9 per 100. When sitting, the Hawks were +4.9. That means Atlanta was 17.6 points per 100 possessions better without Reddish. In games that he didn’t play in, their Net Rating (+3.1) was about the same as that of Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Their problem wasn’t a lack of talent, they just weren’t as good at managing the tough weeks as well as Miami. Few are.
“There were so many moving parts in the first half of the season,” Erik Spoelstra said. “Everybody just has to tip their hat to all the teams in the association for being able to manage everything. They dealt with their share of adversity, a lot of guys in and out of the lineup for a bunch of different reasons. But when it mattered most that’s when they hit their stride. That’s the team that we are preparing for.”
With Young playing, and he was as good as ever with more counters to how teams want to defend him than over, scoring was never an issue. They’re the No. 2 offense in the NBA with an Offensive Rating of 115.4. Not a piece of that was a fluke. They just couldn’t defend, finishing out as the No. 26 defense in the league. Amusingly, Atlanta’s pre- and post- January 17 Defensive Ratings are almost exactly 113.7 both ways, but their defensive rank jumped to league-average in the second half because so many other teams fell off a cliff at that end. For good or ill, their lineups were remarkably consistent. Consistency breeds an identity, of sorts.
That’s what will be worth remembering as this series gets going. Even with the question marks surrounding the health of Clint Capela and Collins, the Hawks know who they are. When healthy they surround one of the most singular and dynamic offensive talents of the past decade – Young and Luka Doncic are the only two active players with a usage rate over 30 percent and an assist rate over 40 percent – with shooters and athletes. They don’t turn the ball over, they have a reasonably balanced shot diet and defensively they play things fairly conservative in order to get by.
Does that make them world beaters? Maybe not. But teams that know who they are can be the most dangerous teams to play.
All that said, here’s why Miami, the No. 1 seed for good reason, has a pretty good shot at beating them.
WHEN ATLANTA HAS THE BALL
It’s reductive to say that how Miami deals with Trae Young on the defensive end will determine the series, but it’s tough not to think that way with someone not only of his caliber, but his volume. Only Nikola Jokic and LaMelo Ball had more touches this season, and nobody ran more pick-and-rolls than Young, the leader in that category (over Doncic) by nearly 500 screens. Everything runs through Young, so if you want to stop the Hawks you find a way to stop Young.
Well, maybe stop is the wrong word.
“Trae is going to do him,” Kyle Lowry said. “Trae is going to have his great games, he’s going to have his highlights. He’s going to do whatever he’s got to do in order to help his team win. He’s one of the most dynamic point guards we have in our league now, and we have to know that he’s going to do some spectacular things.”
Stop is what teams tried to do in the past. The blueprint for Atlanta was to take Young out of the action, blitz or double him aggressively, make him give up the ball and force the other Hawks to beat you. It’s an age-old concept, and for a couple years it worked. Three years ago if you blitzed Young the Hawks were getting just 1.07 points-per-screen out of those actions. For a team that’s built around being elite offensively, that number wasn’t going to cut it. But then the Hawks added some veterans, shooters and a big in Capela who had plenty of experience diving to the rim, the younger players on the roster developed with experience and Young took those early struggles with aggressive coverages as a learning experience. Skip ahead two years, and now if you blitz Young off a screen it’s worth 1.18 points-per-screen for the Hawks – literally one of the best actions you can run in the entire league.
“He’s reading the game really well now,” Bam Adebayo said. “Before, he was making the ordinary, regular passes. Now, you can’t dictate when he’s going to throw it, right hand or left hand. You just realize how much he’s improved with his passing.”
“He’s getting off the ball,” said Caleb Martin, who has had some success this season hounding Young up and down the court, “That’s what good players like him do. They still affect the game when they’re shot isn’t falling. He’s picking guys apart. That’s why everyone has to be so locked in defensively. Not only on the initial pass but on the rotation.”
You can crinkle up the previous blueprint and toss it in the trash. Defending Young is a far more complicated endeavor now. Fortunately Miami might have as close to a perfect set of personnel for doing so.
We know that the HEAT are going to switch. With Adebayo on the court, they switch as often as just about any team in the history of the game. Young knows this, too, and he’s smart enough not to take the bait. Adebayo has the length to contest Young if he tries to pull-up, and if Young make a run toward the rim Adebayo has the foot speed to stay with him and contest the shot. While Young did get Adebayo to stumble a bit on one possession a couple weeks ago, for the most part he doesn’t try to go at the HEAT’s best defender. Over the past three seasons, Young has attacked in isolation 1,264 times. Only 12 of those – at 0.67 points-per – came against Adebayo. For contrast. Luka Doncic has isolated Adebayo 28 time in four seasons, and Miami only plays Dallas twice a season.
Therein lies the nerdy fun of this series. Young is too saavy to attack where the HEAT want him to attack – unless the shot clock is getting low, with Miami one of the best teams in the league at shrinking the clock – so the teams are going to constantly trade different looks and schemes and coverages and reads. Early on in a recent game, Young took the initial Adebayo switch only to call up another screen to get Max Strus on the second switch.
Later, the Hawks flipped the play, with Young calling Capela back for another screen after the switch so that the smaller player was in place to stop the ball while Adebayo had to fight through the screen.
Notice what Capela did there, slipping the screen? That’s one of the best ways to beat any switch, to escape into a passing lane mid-exchange, effectively manufacturing a two-on-the-ball situation out of Miami’s base scheme. As with the blitz, two on the ball with Young can be a losing proposition without the correct circumstance.
So, knowing that Capela is setting up the slip, what does Adebayo do later on to adjust? He runs up as if you switch only to drop back with Capela, and with Capela not setting an actual screen it leaves the primary defender on Young as if nothing ever happened. This created a funny situation late in the first half where Adebayo, Young and Capela effectively had a standoff waiting to see who would do what.
There are layers upon layers to all of this. Young has so much quick-twitch range on his jumper that he can step into the pocket created by any switch and fire during that split second between one defender and the other.
“Even if you’re switching and doing things right, he can step right into that open gap in between the switch,” Spoelstra said. “So very few people can do that.”
Young isn’t going to let defenders like Strus, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson off the hook. Those three are going to be involved in a ton of pick-and-rolls.
“Teams are going to do that now,” Strus said. “Everybody is going to try and isolate me. Me and Duncan and Tyler, we get singled out. I’m more than willing to go and swtich, I think I can handle my own. But Bam is the Defensive Player of the Year, in any situation like that we want him guarding their best player.”
Miami has ways to wriggle out of a jam, it just requires precision. They can pre-switch a switch, with Adebayo and Strus communicating as Strus’ man runs up to set the screen, and that can turn into a triple switch where Strus winds up taking the rolling big in the lane. Even when they conceded the Strus switch down the stretch of the most recent game, Jimmy Butler shaded the action and eventually doubled. As is the HEAT’s modus operandi, nobody gets left on an island unless you’re somebody like Adebayo.
We’ll have plenty of time during this series to dive into the minutiae of the Young pick-and-rolls. It may not be the most appealing thing to watch for, but with all due respect to the scoring of Kevin Huerter and Bogdan Bogdanovic – and Collins, if he plays – this little chess game within the game will likely decide the course of the series. Young was finding plenty of success in that game on April 8, but when the HEAT tightened the screws in the final period Atlanta only scored six points in the final five minutes.
Miami isn’t going to win every pick-and-roll, but with Adebayo and Butler and Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker – incredible at shrinking the floor and deterring drives – and Martin and Gabe Vincent, the HEAT have plenty of pieces to move.
WHEN MIAMI HAS THE BALL
From the very first game of the season, it was clear that the HEAT were trying to diversify their offensive menu. With Lowry on hand to run the offense and get everyone the ball in optimal positions, Butler and Adebayo were freed from some of their playmaking responsibilities from previous seasons and put in position to attack smaller players or otherwise weaker defenders. It was mismatch hunting season.
While that focus came and went as the lineups were in constant flux, when the core starters were available and Lowry was there to set everyone up Butler and Adebayo were more than willing the play the seekers of the weak links. As much as Young figures heavily into Atlanta’s attack, he’s also the player teams tend to go after on the other end of the floor, both because it makes practical sense and because it can help to wear Young down.
So we should expect plenty of Butler post-ups on Young, right?
While that could happen because Lowry is so good at throwing the ball ahead to catch a team in a transition cross-match – though Young is rarely the first man back because he’s on the ball so often – Atlanta isn’t going to cooperate and just throw their point guard to the wolves. As such, the Hawks rarely switch. Only three teams switch fewer screens than the Hawks – one of those being the Chicago Bulls, who the HEAT had no trouble scoring against this season – and Young himself has switched just 94 screens all season, per Second Spectrum’s player tracking data, just barely over one per game.
In that case, you probably aren’t going to see Young defending Miami’s primary scorers too often. But that might not be necessary. They can still run Young through as many screens as they desire and take advantage of how Atlanta tries to protect him – namely through drop coverage. And when the Hawks ran drop against the HEAT, a team that has the weapons to attack the space conceded in that coverage – come on down Lowry and Herro pull-ups, which could become Miami’s most important shots during this postseason run – Miami scored 1.33 points-per-screen.
Atlanta does have some good defensive units. When either Delon Wright or Okongwu – possibly the starting center pending the status of Capela – is on the court Atlanta defends at what would be a Top 10 rate. You start mixing either of those two in with multiple starters and their defensive impact starts to have diminishing returns, but the point is that there is some defensive personnel on hand. With Okongwu especially, who has some overlapping defensive tools with Adebayo, Nate McMillan does have the option to switch more often if he chose to.
The onus here is on Atlanta. Miami scored 1.14 points per possession during the season. Against the Hawks that number grew to 1.20. While you’re likely well versed in the HEAT’s occasional struggles with halfcourt offense, those issues tend to crop up against lengthy team that switch. Atlanta isn’t that, and in the halfcourt the HEAT scored 1.22 points per possession against them – literally the best they scored in the halfcourt against any postseason team (along with Chicago, the other drop-coverage heavy group).
Atlanta can win games with their offense, but it’s on them to prove that they can get stops. To this point, against Miami, they haven’t done that. The HEAT can run what they run, with plenty of off-ball movement that scrambles a defense into mistakes, until their opponent stops it.
If the HEAT can slow down Young in the meantime, they should be just fine. But this isn’t a walkover, not by any means. Eight seed or not, the Hawks are a better team than their record. We’ll see how their injury situation sorts itself out – missing both Colllins and Capela puts a lot of strain on their depth, which is part of why their first-half record was what it was – but they’re an experienced bunch led by one of the league’s best puzzle-solvers.
While Miami might have the answers they need on hand until proven otherwise, this is a series to take seriously.
“You can scheme all you want, it’s about how hard you go out and play,” P.J. Tucker said.