New Year, New HEAT: Miami Takes Down The Contending Brooklyn Nets With Two Things They Never Did Last Season, And One They've Been Building Toward

It May Be October, But The HEAT Are Winning Different
Bam Adebayo
by Couper Moorhead

A couple years back, the Miami HEAT beating one of the best teams in the league would have felt like a monumental occasion, a highlight of the season for a team trying to prove it belonged in the upper echelon.

This year, with a team full of veterans who have been there done that in the regular season, it was just Wednesday.

“We got a team with a lot of guys that have won, that have had that experience of getting that championship so they know what it takes,” Bam Adebayo said. “My previous years, we haven’t had more than two guys [with that experience].”

There was a formula for Miami winning these sort of games, one that held true for the past two or three iterations of this roster. Shoot well. Make sure the other team did not shoot well. Sure, there were exceptions to that rule especially when some last-second shots were involved, but generally if they were taking down a Top 5 team you could look at the box-score and sure enough one team would be over 40 percent from deep and the other team would be in the 20’s.

Against the Brooklyn Nets, the HEAT shot 8-of-29 (27.6 percent) from three and 39.6 percent from the field. The Nets didn’t shoot well, either, which lent the game at least a hint of postseason feel.

“It feels good being able to win games knowing that you’re not making shots,” Jimmy Butler said.

To pull it off Miami had to do a couple things they haven’t done in years past, and another they’ve been building up to for a good long while.

The first is simple. With their shots not falling, they crashed the offensive glass, punishing a Brooklyn roster that likes to play small and played even smaller with Nic Claxton out due to an illness. Miami’s 17 offensive boards would have been the most in any single game in either of the past two years. Over and over the Nets would get a stop and threaten to string together two or three scoring possessions and take the lead, but then Dewayne Dedmon (six offensive rebounds) or P.J. Tucker (four) or Jimmy Butler (four) would get their hands on the ball and breathe life back into Miami’s possession.

“It’s been a quality of the team that we noticed early on,” Erik Spoelstra said. “We hoped that this would be a good rebounding team, it’s something that we focused on as an organization in the offseason.”

It’s a bit of a misnomer to say that the 2020-21 HEAT were a bad rebounding team – I am begging everyone to stop using raw rebounding margin for anything, ever – since they were just about bang-on average on the defensive glass. Because the transition defense was often so porous, that group couldn’t afford to chase second chances, where they ranked No. 29. Coupled with the team’s below-average turnover rate, opposing teams routinely put up more shots than them.

“That’s pretty much true for every team, if you can create more possessions than your opponent then it’s always good,” Kevin Durant said following the loss.

Through four games, this team is No. 7 on the offensive glass, in part by choice, and No. 2 on the defensive side, through upgraded personnel – if you watched the playoffs last year you saw Tucker pull down one huge offensive board after another for the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks. Most importantly, the HEAT finished plus-11 in field-goal attempts over the Nets.

The second aspect they’ve added to their game is speed. We’re only four games into the marathon and you probably feel like you’ve heard about this ad nauseum by now, but it’s a big deal that Kyle Lowry has injected a significant dose of full-court dynamism into this group. Just as the offensive glass afforded Miami chances inside when they couldn’t finish over-the-top, their 18 fast-break points were the easiest points they got all evening.

The HEAT have been trying to run for years, in one way or another. Each season they would start off playing up-tempo, trying to manufacture points to help them overcome nights when their dribble-handoff-heavy halfcourt offense would get jammed up. And each season their turnover numbers would spike as it became clear that the personnel just wasn’t there for that style, despite the best efforts of Goran Dragic to blaze trails, so by December Spoelstra would slow things down and by the end of the year, Miami would be bringing up the caboose in the pace rankings (they finished No. 29 last season). Pace isn’t always a perfect measure given that better defensive teams tend to draw out possessions, but the slowdown vibes translated to offensive possession length as the majority of transition scores came after live turnovers.

This year, Miami is playing almost a full second faster on offense with Kyle Lowry on the floor. Rather than relying on pick-six steals from Butler to create those opportunities, rather than running just to run, it’s functional speed. Off makes, off misses, everyone knows that a hard-run route will get a look from the quarterback. Teams won’t all be as leaky in their open-court awareness as the Nets were in the first half – the Nets cleaned things up themselves as the game wore on – and Miami may only end up an average team in pace, but if all a season of these open floor reps creates is a handful of easy buckets in a hard-fought playoff series, it will have been worth it.

Big picture, the offensive glass and transition scores are accents which will emphasize everything the HEAT do well, foundationally. They will be a factor, as they were last night, but they won’t always be front and center, the things the other team is talking about after the game as the Nets were, as the focus and preparation of their opponents shift.

What will matter every single time down the floor is Miami’s ability to switch.

We don’t need to rehash Miami’s recent history with switching too much. We’ve done that plenty. They acquired Jae Crowder two years ago, gradually shifted from conservative drop coverage to a switch-heavy scheme and have rarely ever looked back. With Lowry and Tucker now in the fold, along with Markieff Morris off the bench, Miami has the bodies to be one of the best switching teams in the league. That ability may not ever matter more than when they play the Nets. It’s that same personnel that can switch so well that also allows the HEAT to be selective with their switching. If an opponent is just running through the motions in their offensive sets, a Lowry or Tucker or Butler can simply navigate the screens themselves and stay home on their man until the shot clock gets short and *smacks fist into an open palm* now there’s the switch and Durant is trying to score on Adebayo. Or they can switch early and blow up the possession, turning it into a one-on-one show.

Miami switched 30 pick-and-rolls against Brooklyn, per Second Spectrum, a higher number but not the highest number (typically in the upper 40’s), and allowed just 0.75 points per possession when those actions were involved. With multiple MVP’s on the floor, you can loose an arrow into that number on the stat report and circle it in sharpie.

It’s pretty apparent that the Nets certainly aren’t fully operational, for a variety of reasons, at this stage in the season. There are some things to sort out with their roster – we’ll just leave that at that – James Harden is clearly working his way into his best rhythm and they haven’t shown the same out-of-the-box sharpness that the HEAT have had in spades. But the HEAT aren’t who they want to be yet, either, as they tell it.

“I think we’re ok right now,” Tucker said of the defense. “We’re not great. It’s not great. Trust me. It’s not perfect. The thing with switching is even when you mess up, having each other’s back and when you rotate and communicate. There’s so many more things that go into it.

“You’re going to mess up, but it’s the effort and energy that go into messing up. We do that. That’s a key to it. That’s a huge key to it. That’s a reason why our defense has looked solid so far. Has it been good? Debatable. But we play hard, so I think we’re going to get better and better at it as the season goes on.”

Miami is allowing 92 points per 100 possessions through four games. It’s been over five years since any team finished under 100. The numbers will probably get a little worse, even as the team gets better and tighter in their switching and their rotations. That’ll balance out with the jumpers starting to fall eventually – they will, though we may need to talk about a possible and apparent shift toward the mid-range in the coming weeks. They can still be so much better than they’ve been, and they’ve been great on defense. Great in a way that matters, in a way that translates directly to the switch-heavy postseason, in a way that tells you that beating the Brooklyn Nets in October means at least something.

Change has been good for this roster, so far, and they’ll continue to change and evolve from now until April. Brooklyn will be different by then, too. But beating a great team in the regular season felt a little different this time around, in part because the expectations are higher than they’ve been in some time, in part because they won in a way that didn’t feel like October at all.

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