The Spice Did Flow: As The HEAT Dominated Their Season Opener, Bam Adebayo Showed Us Where He's Going

The All-Star Center's Game Has Begun To Shift Into Something Even More Dynamic
Bam Adebayo
by Couper Moorhead
HEAT.com

Thursday night was about as good as the Miami HEAT have looked in just over a calendar year, a 42-point pièce de dominance that would have cast shadows over any night any of their previous season even with the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks missing key parts of their rotation. The HEAT had the juice, perhaps fueled by the playoff loss last season or the mere fact that it is no longer last season, and the Bucks did not. You couldn’t ask for a much better start to the marathon.

The game was out of question so quickly, so early, that it’s difficult to create any hard takeaways outside of Miami being, so far, as advertised. The defense was stifling, interestingly similar to the scheme the team used last year with plenty of help on the ball to keep it out of the paint – we’ll keep a close eye on how many threes the team is allowing in the early going – while on the other side of the floor the team was simultaneously quicker (111.0 pace in the first half) and more organized (five first-half turnovers, 11 in total) behind Kyle Lowry’s guidance. If you expected a 50-win caliber team coming into official proceedings, you came away happy.

With apologies to Lowry, Tyler Herro, looking more than comfortable as a sixth-man Nova Corps, and a revitalized Jimmy Butler, the early story of the season is Miami’s All-Star center and his coach who is changing the way he uses him.

Bam Adebayo (20 points on 13 shots in 23 minutes) and Duncan Robinson have been connected at the hip for the past two seasons, and their bond was never stronger than in the opening quarter. As opposing players were still stretching out their jerseys and firing up their leg cylinders, Robinson would come flying around an Adebayo handoff at Mach speed and, more often than not, nail an opening three or three.

The first half-court possession against Milwaukee was not that. Rather than Adebayo dutifully waiting for Robinson on the wing, Robinson crossed the paint and set a screen to set up an Adebayo post-up.

Post-ups can still be facilitatory actions, but watch Adebayo’s head. He first turns it partially to find Giannis Antetokounmpo, then turns it fully to meet his defender face-to-face. Even as Lowry screens for Robinson at the stripe, Adebayo is in score mode as he catches the reigning Finals MVP with his hands in the cookie jar.

A few minutes later, Adebayo fielded a pitch-ahead from Lowry and, instead of holding up on the wing to find a shooter, pushes into post position. Give it up, get it back from your point guard with the quickness, go to work on the move Adebayo says he spent the summer working on.

“My jab jumper,” Adebayo said of his offseason focus. “I feel that was one of those things I really improved on. And making easy reads in the open court. If I see a one-on-one matchup, attack the matchup and let the chips fall where they may.”

On a shortened evening, minutes-wise, Adebayo used 7.5 post-ups per 100 possessions as tracked by Second Spectrum. Last season that number was around five. If you isolate for scoring post-ups (ending in a shot, foul or turnover), Adebayo’s usage has doubled – a trend that was also present in preseason. The increase correlated directly to a drop in handoffs, with Bam using seven against Milwaukee (13 per 100) versus 12 per game a year ago (17.7 per 100).

Coupled with some open court pushes and pick-and-roll work, the size-depleted Bucks (missing Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez, among others) couldn’t stop fouling Adebayo. For just the second time in his career, he took 10 shots and attempted five free-throws in the first half. The only other time? When Adebayo scored his career-high 41 in Brooklyn last season amidst Miami’s many COVID-related absences.

It’s a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma when it comes to Adebayo. Is he playing more aggressively because he’s being put in more scoring positions, or is he being put in more scoring positions because he’s playing more aggressively?

“I think this is just the constant evolution of a great player,” Spoelstra said. “Each year he’s added to his game. We continue to try to maximize all the different areas on the floor with him, as a playmaker, as a screener, as a post-up player, at the elbow, all of these things are going to help our team and add to the menu.”

“I feel like that was more my assertiveness,” Adebayo said. “I came back from the Olympics looking to work on my game, I’ve tired to improve every year. He’s one of those coaches that when he sees opportunity, he sees success, he doesn’t go away from that. He keeps feeding into it. He wants me to be the best version of me.”

A full answer to the Adebayo question might not matter much in the grand scheme if the endpoint is the same. He shoots more, he scores more, the rest his history. But it does hold interest from a forensic standpoint. Many, including his own teammates, have called for Adebayo to play more assertively, or selfishly depending on who you ask, with the ball in his hands. All well and good. It’s natural to want to see a young star continue to build on top of a rapidly accelerated development timeline. The context the conversation often missed, however, was the incredible balance Adebayo, as the central playmaking cog in Miami’s shooting-dependent offense, had to strike. Every shot he took was a shot he didn’t create for a teammate that needed a shot created for them. Treating Adebayo too critically in that regard always seemed the fool’s errand given the weight he carried on his shoulders.

With Lowry on board, much of that weight has been lifted.

“It’s really because of Kyle, in all honesty,” Adebayo said. “The way he pitches the ball ahead, the way he keeps the pace going, I feel like it’s a big part of Kyle. He knows how to get other people involved.

“I’m picking my spots more. Kyle gets everybody involved so me and Jimmy can focus on scoring and being aggressive.”

The good news is that Adebayo’s playmaking may not come at as much of a cost as it may initially seem despite his one lone assist in the opening matchup. Per 100 possessions, Adebayo’s potential assists were perfectly in line with last season’s numbers (15.1 against Milwaukee as opposed to 14.8 all of last season).

If there is a price to pay in the usage shift (31.5 usage rate after hitting 23.7 last year), it will likely be in the realm of efficiency. Post-ups and isolations (Adebayo used three last night, also above his career norm) are inherently sink-or-swim propositions. There’s nobody coming from some other floor in the building to help you out. You’re at your desk and it’s on you to figure it out, whether that means scoring or reading the defense to find the leaky spot in a helping defense. Growing pains will come in some form or another – Adebayo scored just .59 points per post-up in preseason, well below his usual – as they do for any player seeking to expand. The jab-jumper is a weapon, but it won’t be the only one required – something LeBron James learned a decade ago. Defenses will be creative with the volume and cadence of their help, an advanced education Adebayo embarked upon last season. As usage goes up, efficiency comes down if, and that’s ultimately the path toward All-NBA.

It’s a lot to say about a single performance, maybe, but it’s clear where we’re meant to be headed with Adebayo. He’s crafting a game that is well suited to the slowdown, switch-heavy, beat-your-man style of the postseason, he’s in lockstep with his coach and he’s got an elite ball-deliverer to set him up for success. It might not always look as good as it did against the defending champions, but for a player with unending talent, this is clearly the way.

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