The Miami HEAT are 17-12, No. 5 in the Eastern Conference with the seventh-best Net Rating at plus-3.1. They’ve beaten Milwaukee, Chicago and Philadelphia in the past week without Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Markieff Morris, with others also missing time. Here’s what we’ve been noting and noticing:
IN THE ZONE
You don’t need to look too much further than their zone defense to find out how Miami got their win in Philadelphia. We’ve been talking about the zone for a few weeks now, so instead of diving into the details of it – we all understand what a zone is at this point, whichever version of it Miami is playing – let’s take a look at Miami’s history with their alternate defense.
Erik Spoelstra had his team in zone for 64 percent of Miami’s half-court defensive possessions against the 76ers, allowing 0.98 points-per-possession. The 76ers wound up taking 44 percent of their shots beyond the arc – they average 34 percent – and Joel Embiid got just 22 touches inside the arc, well below his average. There’s your win, or at least half of it. For this season, it was more zone than any team has played in a single game thus far.
Miami’s zone journey began four seasons ago, coincidentally also against a Doc Rivers’ coached team. Before 2018, Spoelstra had rarely dabbled in zone. They experimented early in that season, throwing it out here and there, but it wasn’t until Game 25 against the Los Angeles Clippers – again shorthanded with many rotation players missing – that the curtains were well and truly pulled back as the HEAT used zone on 48 percent of their possessions. The Clippers scored eight points in that fourth quarter, and Spoelstra had yet another victory without anything close to his full complement of players.
At the time it was the seventh-most zone any team had used in the previous six seasons, per Second Spectrum tracking data, and the first time Spoelstra’s zone usage had topped 15 percent since the (injury-plagued) 2014-15 season.
In the four seasons since and including 2018-19, there have been 32 games when a team used zone on at least 50 percent of its defensive possessions. The HEAT own 16 of those.
If you asked Spoelstra about the zone he’ll often say some form of, “We play zone, we don’t play it every game.” He’s right about that. It’s not their base defense. But for as much it might not lead to the most enjoyable watch, keep in mind what the zone represents. It’s Spoelstra recognizing the strengths and limitations of the roster on any given night and adjusting to their opponent. That’s coaching.
“WE WERE SHOOTING THEM THANGS”
That was Kyle Lowry after the HEAT beat the Milwaukee Bucks last week, referencing Miami’s 47 attempts from three that evening. It remains as perfect a description for how the HEAT have adjusted to life without Adebayo (and Butler, for the time being) as any.
Typically a team with a well-above average attempt rate from deep, especially over the past two seasons, Miami was down to No. 19 in the percent of shots coming from beyond the arc through November 29 – the night Adebayo was injured. They weren’t going away from shooting so much as simply trying to diversify their offense, upping their post-ups and isolations (against mismatches) with Lowry on hand to set the table. But without Adebayo and Butler, the two players that expanded menu was designed to serve best, Spoelstra had to zag – and he zags with ease.
In the eight games since Adebayo’s injury against Denver, 45 percent of Miami’s offense is coming from three. That’s No. 2 only behind the Utah Jazz. Better yet, they’re shooting 40.3 percent.
“This is who we are right now. We’re not jacking them [up],” Spoelstra said. “It’s within the context of what we’re doing. We’re still doing our paint attacks and touches.”
On some level, it’s a pure variance play. It’s math. Exciting, I know. Without your primary paint attackers – not to mention the players who earn, by far, the majority of your free-throws – Spoelstra isn’t going to ask players to do things they aren’t good at. By spacing the floor and upping the three-point rate, the HEAT are increasing their odds of having both a great and a bad offensive night. That’s just how the lower-percentage, higher-value shot plays out, especially when you combine it with the zone inviting opposing teams to take threes they don’t normally take. Yes, you’re susceptible to a night like at Cleveland recently where Miami shoots 32.5 percent on 40 attempts and the Cavaliers take control. But it also gives them the opportunity to beat opponents who may have more size and talent.
Of course it only looks good if the shots fall, and fortunately they have. The recent two-game stretch against Milwaukee (a franchise-high-tying 22 threes made) and Chicago (another 19, the first time the HEAT had ever put together consecutive games of 19 threes or better) was likely the best two-game shooting stretch in HEAT history. When good timing meets good strategy, you find victories on what otherwise may have been fruitless evenings.
It hasn’t all been one or two players, either. Caleb Martin sets a career-high with six threes against the Bucks in the same game that Max Strus hits four threes in the fourth quarter. Duncan Robinson and Lowry combine for nine threes against Chicago. Gabe Vincent makes a career-high seven, including the game winner, against Philadelphia.
If you’re going to shoot at volume, you need capable volume shooters. Miami’s roster may be lacking in size and attacking force right now, but they most certainly have players who will “shoot them thangs”.
CUT THE PAINT
On a normal night, even fully healthy, the HEAT are not a team that generates a ton of paint pressure with the dribble. For the season, they are No. 27 in drives per 100 possessions by a whisker over the Golden State Warriors and Brooklyn Nets. Clearly, you don’t need drives to have a potent offense.
What Miami does generate a ton of is paint touches, the second most in the league. The way touches are tracked, they’re logged for the location on the floor where the ball is literally first touched. So if P.J. Tucker catches a pocket pass from one of Miami’s shooters as he rolls into the middle of the floor, there’s a paint touch. Same with Dewayne Dedmon catching a lob. We’ve been over how the HEAT take advantage of their shooter’s gravity to create 4-on-3 situations, and how good Tucker has been in Adebayo’s absence at making those plays, but what about how the shooters themselves take advantage of how they’re being played?
Same as any year. Cut where the defense isn’t.
HEAT Elbow Cuts
HEAT watchers will be familiar with the traditional slot cuts ever-present in Spoelstra’s systems. One players drives the ball down the right side of the floor, the defense collapses and a wing dives in from the opposite slot – between the top of the arc and the break along the sideline – into the open lane. These are a little different. Fewer drives, fewer slot cuts. These are gravity cuts, playing the defenders off themselves as they expect you to use screens to generate a three.
“It’s about adding some diversity to your menu,” Spoelstra says. “It also depends on how teams are playing you. It’s not always going to be readily available. There’s a heightened awareness for our shooters. When they hit a couple in a row everybody knows they’re ignitable. Two can turn into four, six, eight, that type of thing. At that point then there tends to be some adjustments and those plays can be relief points against some types of coverages.”
All those clips are since Adebayo’s injury. As Spoelstra says, those plays aren’t always going to be there, but when they are they almost seem to count for double for how they make the defense think twice about committing extra help to shooters over the top of screens.
-In the first half of Miami’s recent victory over Chicago, Kyle Lowry had 12 assists and zero turnovers. He’s the third HEAT player since 1996 (when the NBA play-by-play data begins) to post 12 assists or more with zero turnovers, joining Jason Williams and Goran Dragic. Asked about his assists afterward, Lowry had this to say:
“I don’t ever take credit for anything,” Lowry said. “Those guys make shots. Duncan made a bunch of threes, Tucks made shots, Dedmon made shots. Those guys make shots. I don’t feel like I do anything special but put the ball where they can put it in the hole.
“I don’t get assists if those guys make shots.”
-Since Duncan Robinson shot 1-of-16 from three against Denver and Cleveland at the end of November, he’s shooting 41.2 percent on 7.3 attempts per game over his past seven games. His season averages are only up to 33.7 percent, but it’s very possible, if not likely, he was just in a very normal slump and has since broken out of it. He’s too good of a shooter not to shoot.
-Joel Embiid leads the league with over 10 post-ups per game. Against Miami on Wednesday he had just four. The zone played a significant part in that, but also credit Dedmon and Tucker for fronting Embiid and pushing him off his spots. That’s no easy battle, but they made Philadelphia’s passing windows to their best player as small and short as possible.
“That was the gameplan, to try and limit his touches,” Dedmon said.
-The last time a HEAT players hit a go-ahead three in the final forty seconds of a game, before Vincent's in Philly this week? Tyler Herro's memorable steal-and-shoot three, also against the 76ers, back in December 2019.