The Miami HEAT are 53-39, No. 1 in the Eastern Conference with a Net Rating of plus-4.7, No. 6 in the league. They just capped off their tenth 50-win regular season in franchise history, and now they wait for the result of the play-in tournament (Brooklyn, Cleveland, Atlanta and Charlotte are those in the running) to find out their first-round opponent. That information comes Friday. For now, this is what we’ve been noting and noticing.
JIMMY BUTLER’S GOOD TIMING
Jimmy Butler’s three-point shot has been a point of fascination for the past three seasons, though not one that has been particularly ripe for analysis.
While Butler didn’t necessarily enter the league as a shooter – he only attempted 90 threes in three seasons at Marquette and took 11 total in 359 minutes his rookie season in Chicago – he shot 38 percent from deep on 105 attempts in his second season and in four All-Star seasons spread between the Bulls and Timberwolves he was a league-average shooter, 35.2 percent, on about three attempts per game. The three ball wasn’t his game, but it was part of his game when he needed it to be. Or, perhaps the better way of putting it, when he wanted it to be.
“If I choose to shoot it, I shoot it,” Butler said recently. “Yeah, everyone is telling me to shoot more threes, which I can. But I like to play bully ball and run into people and see who’s stronger. That’s just the way I play.”
After an efficiency dip during his brief 55-game stint in Philadelphia, the three hasn’t been there for Butler in Miami. He shot 24.4 percent on 2.1 attempts per game his first season, when he was often called upon to run point, and each of the last two has been about the same. This year he was hovering in the high teens until a recent eight-game stretch that’s had him at 41.7 percent on three attempts per night with what looks like much more old-school, set-shot form than the actual jumper mechanics he's typically used.
Trae Young Switch Pocket
Normally, an eight-game stretch wouldn’t mean much of anything. In this circumstance it might not mean much of anything, either. But Butler is an interesting case in that we have a previous example of him shooting more, and better, once the postseason came around. After the 2019-20 season was suspended, Butler shot, again bang-on average, 34.9 percent during the Finals run including 5-of-11 against the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks.
We have a three-year sample size of Butler neither taking nor making very many threes. Does an eight-game sample here – with a handful of teams choosing to leave him wide open – or a playoff run there contradict all that data and tell us Butler is at least the average shooter he was in previous stops? Can he just choose to be a better shooter when he wants to be? No and probably not. But that’s not a question we should even be trying to answer. We don’t need to sort through the low-volume noise to know Butler’s true-talent level as a shooter, all we need to know is if he can make a few shots when it matters. Given how shooting, and statistics work, the answer to that is an obvious yes, in both directions. Even Joe Harris, one of the best shooters in the league, had a five-game stretch of 24.2 percent shooting against Milwaukee as Brooklyn lost in seven games last year. If teams are going to leave Butler open, with perhaps a little wrinkle thrown in of him jumping less though we’ll see how much that sticks, those threes become easier than some of the last second, against-the-clock threes he’s had to put up (which skew his percentages a bit).
The story that comes to mind is that of Dwyane Wade. After hitting a handful of threes in the first week of the 2015-16 season, Wade made one single, lonely three over the last 66 games and not a single one after Christmas. While he never hit average efficiency as Butler had previously done, Wade had similarly raised and lowered his three-point volume over the years depending on the needs of the roster. That year, the team didn’t need it so he barely shot, and made, them.
Then came the playoffs and the HEAT found themselves down 3-2 to the Charlotte Hornets headed out on the road for Game 6. Wade had attempted just one three in that series to that point, but in a tight game with three minutes to play and a man in a purple shirt yelling at him on the sideline, Wade hit two threes to hold off a late Hornets run. Nothing before those moments would have indicated that Wade would make those two shots – it still generates a chuckle thinking about it – other than that he had made, and been able to take, important shots before. That night may have been a random event that went against what numbers may have predicted, but any postseason run is full of those moments whether we have percentages to assign to them or not. And remember, a lower percentage of something happening is not the same as no percentage.
Sometimes it’s better to have good timing than to be empirically good. Butler’s jumper may remain something of a mystery box – he is otherwise having one of the better mid-range seasons of his career, which has helped a ton given how often he’s hunting mismatches to post-up – but like Wade he’s at least earned a lack of surprise next time he makes an important one or three.
TRAE YOUNG AND THE SWITCH POCKET
Trae Young knows better, in a good way. He’s so talented, so skilled and, more so each passing season, so savvy, that he knows better than to waste his time trying to go right at a defender like Bam Adebayo. Over the past three seasons, Young has only tried Adebayo for 12 isolations – many of them late clock or late game when the Hawks have no other options – and produced just 0.67 points-per-possession.
Instead of repeatedly learning The Lesson, Young wisely attempts to, as many teams do these days, move Adebayo around. He’ll take the first Adebayo switch, but then call for another screen to get Adebayo switched onto a shooter on the weakside of the floor and away from the play. Doing so eats clock, and it doesn’t always work out, but when Atlanta is operating at maximum capacity Young often does a masterful job of manipulating the court.
But the other thing Young can do that even some other elite guards cannot is attack he switch pocket. What is that? On any switch the player defending the screener is typically going to be trailing the screener by at least a step or two. Which means when the screen is set, there’s a split-second – or longer, if the exchange isn’t on point – between where one defender hands off the ballhandler to another. In that split-second, there’s a pocket of space. Most players can’t do anything with that pocket unless they’re incredibly adept at splitting defenders and getting downhill – Kyrie Irving did this a couple times to the HEAT – but Young has so much range on his jumper he can just pull up over the top.
This is what it looked like last week.
“Even if you’re switching and doing things right, he can step right into that open gap in between the switch,” Erik Spoelstra said. “So very few people can do that.”
A switch is not a defense designed to concede any space, but there’s still a fraction of a window that only the most talented players can use. Some of those players might be relevant to Miami in the coming months.
THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT
Have you been watching Winning Time on HBO? If you’re at all interested in the history of basketball and the NBA it’s well worth your time, and it’s stylized to the point where it’s impossible to be boring. Along with Adrien Brody playing Pat Riley, there’s also a pretty uncanny performance by Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson that almost has to be seen to be believed. Fun show, easy watch.
But part of the story is tragic, and it’s something I’ve thought about regularly since first learning of it in Jeff Pearlman’s Showtime book on which the series is based. And that’s the story of Jack McKinney.
Long story short, McKinney was Dr. Jack Ramsay’s assistant coach for a stretch at St. Joeseph’s and later with the Portland Trail Blazers. When Portland won the title in 1977, Ramsay credited McKinney with the designs and plans behind the team’s up-tempo offense. When McKinney was hired by the Lakers a couple years later, a process depicted in the show, McKinney brought that same offense with him as Los Angeles posted the best offensive rating in the league. But after a 10-4 start, McKinney suffered a bicycle accident while on his way to meet his assistant, Paul Westhead, for tennis on an off day. With McKinney unable to coach as a result, Westhead took over right as the Showtime era was getting off the ground. For his own assistant, Westhead hired Riley, who had been doing color commentary on the team’s local broadcast.
The Lakers won the title that year, and two years later Riley replaced Westhead after the first 11 games as the Lakers won their first of four titles under Riley using an offensive system that McKinney had, at the very least, put in place. The rest is, well, you know.
Where are we going with this? Think about how Riley’s presence has affected the league, the Lakers, the New York Knicks and the HEAT. Think about how Riley has affected you, the reader, and your life. How much would be different if McKinney’s bike never locked up that day, if he had made it to the tennis courts or simply never left his house at all? Riley acknowledged the possibilities in a 2006 interview.
“If he hadn’t had the accident,” Riley told The Los Angeles Times, “he might have won five or six titles for the Lakers in the ’80s.”
Of course you can play this out with every aspect of your life. How would your life be different if you had picked one sport over another, one school over another, one class over another? What if you went to a different party that night, or said something different?
It’s not usually worth the energy thinking of such things, but some things are so random, like the brakes locking up on a bicycle, and have such massive ramifications that it’s impossible not to consider the alternative timelines that could have been.
That’s also multi-versal nonsense at the end of the day. Nothing can be changed. The true tragedy of the story is that McKinney, at 44 years old, reached what should have been the pinnacle of his coaching career. But as soon as he was pulling himself up to the summit, it was all taken away from him. He went on to coach four years in Indiana and nine games in Kansas City. Not the career it should have been, but at least his vision was carried through to fruition.
-Whoever wins between Brooklyn and Cleveland on Tuesday will be the No. 7 seed and play Boston. The loser of that game will then play the winner of Atlanta-Charlotte, and the winner of that game will be the No. 8 seed and face Miami.
-Also on Miami’s side of the bracket is Philadelphia and Toronto. The winner of that matchup would be Miami’s second-round opponent.
-Duncan Robinson finished with 232 threes, making him the seventh player in league history to hit at least 230 threes in three-plus seasons.
-In scoring 25 in the first half against Orlando, Victor Oladipo became the 11th HEAT player to score at least 25 in any half. Dwyane Wade did so 25 times in the regular season, LeBron James did it nine times and nobody else has done so more than twice in a Miami uniform. Oladipo also scored 40 points for the third time in his career, and became the third HEAT player – again alongside Wade and James – to post a line of 40-10-7 in the regular season. Butler, of course, had a 40-11-13 game in the NBA Finals.
-Awards ballots are due by today, April 11. By all accounts, Tyler Herro is winning Sixth Man of the Year. Bam Adebayo is certainly in the mix for Defensive Player of the Year along with five or six other players. That race could be as close as it has ever been.
-Miami finished the season as the No. 11 Offense (113.0 Offensive Rating) and No. 4 Defense (108.4 Defensive Rating). It’s the ninth time in 14 seasons Erik Spoelstra has had his team in the Top 10 on the defensive end. In the half-court, the offense finished No. 11 there as well.
-The HEAT also finished 29-2 when shooting 40 percent from three. That number is going to be exceedingly relevant in the coming months.