The Eye Of The Storm: Behind Erik Spoelstra And Kyle Lowry, The Temporarily Reformed Three-And-Z HEAT Are Navigating Choppy Waters

The Miami HEAT just keep on winning. Well, they keep on winning enough.


A 6-5 record over just about any stretch of the season isn’t going to win you any blue ribbons. Not for an ostensible contender. But this isn’t just a portion of a season. Without Bam Adebayo for those 11 games, and Jimmy Butler for all but half of one, these last few weeks have been an entirely new season. The HEAT have transitioned into something new themselves. Not a better team, but a necessary one all the same. One that survives.

Kyle Lowry was, in part, brought in to make life easier for Adebayo and Butler. Find them in transition. Hunt mismatches. Let them operate without the ball so that when they do get a touch they’re in an optimal position to score. Diversify the menu, as Erik Spoelstra will commonly put it. For about a month-plus, that’s exactly what happened. More isolations. More post-ups. Fewer handoffs. More ways to punish a greater variety of opponents. Through November 28, Miami owned the No. 8 offense in the league despite some slumping shooters. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good, it worked, and you could see how it would all transition to the postseason.

The side effect was a three-point rate that dropped to No. 20 in the league at 35.8 percent of the team’s offense, the lowest mark of the Butler era. Worth a bat of an eyelash or two, but it tracked in service of the greater good. A sacrifice at the altar of diversification.

Then they lose the core of that system. First Butler, then Adebayo a game later. Enough to iceberg any season, or at least put you in the dreaded play-in zone. Instead of forging ahead while bailing water out of two All-Star sized holes in the side of the ship, Spoelstra rebuilt on the fly. Smaller. Sleeker. Different. With regular minutes opening up for Gabe Vincent and Max Strus, each a more than capable shooter, the HEAT became a crew of high-volume gunners, taking 45.1 percent of their shots from three – No. 2 to Utah and one of the 10 highest rates in league history. It’s a variance play that ups your odds against teams that may have more talent, but it’s also common sense. About to give more minutes to shooters? Let them shoot. Rather, find them shots.

It helps that just about everyone has caught fire since then. It’s one thing to up your three-point rate, something else entirely to be second in the league at 40.7 percent during that same period. In a seven-game stretch from December 13 to present day, Miami has games with 22, 19, 18, 19 and 22 made threes, all wins. In those five games, they made more threes (100) than the franchise made in either the entire 1988-89 or 1989-90 seasons. The HEAT had never had more than two games with 19 made threes in a single month. They’ve done it four times in two weeks. If you want a treasure map to winning shorthanded games, losing your mind beyond the arc marks the spot.

Whenever this shift has been brought up to Spoelstra he’s been quick to offer a common refrain:

“I’ve said this several times,” he says. “It’s not like we’re just coming down and jacking threes and trying to get a to a specific number.”

The messaging is consistent. We want to play our game and get our shots within what we do. With a team as young as the current iteration of the HEAT, even playing without P.J. Tucker in an evisceration-slash-blowout of the Indiana Pacers, it’s easy to see how the style could get away from them. Throw up 40 attempts often enough, the results start living in the front of your brain and things snowball as a team loses the plot. You become what you aren’t. Chuckers.

But Spoelstra still has Lowry, and Lowry isn’t allowing that to happen.

“Now you have moving pieces, guys in and out of the lineups, he can still figure it out,” Spoelstra said. “That’s not an easy task to do. We put in a gameplan and because of the moving parts it might be a slightly different gameplan than what we had before, but his IQ and experience, he can put it in to play and make it work based on the personnel.

“He gets it. He understands that we still need to be able to get to the attacks, put pressure on the paint. The three-point shooting is a byproduct of that.”

Yes, the HEAT still have the second-toughest Shot Quality in the league on threes, per Second Spectrum, but that’s consistent with the past two seasons. They’re No. 4 in catch-and-shoot threes in December, and No. 13 in kickout passes leading to potential assists without their leader in kickout passing (Butler). The shooters move – no team is getting more relocation threes – and the ball is moving, with Miami leading the league in assist percentage in December. When teams overplay the many shooters Spoelstra deploys in lineups that seem to get smaller by the day with Duncan Robinson starting Tuesday at power forward, they zag. The HEAT are No. 4 in off-ball screens leading to a shot this month, and somehow some way No. 2 in paint touches. Spoelstra was dealt a hand. It’s Lowry who makes sure the cards are played right.

“When you’re trying to get the volume that you’re trying to get up, we will shoot some tough ones,” Lowry said. “But it’s all about the pace, the movement, the body movement. One thing is our guys do a great job of finding energy, and going and cutting and getting to the right spots.”

“You’re going to take some tough shots, you’re going to take some fairly maybe bad ones, but when you’re trying to get the volume up without having Jimmy, without having Bam, we’re not going to get to the free-throw line that much. We’re trying to attack, but we shot 11 free-throws. That’s not a lot. We have to make up for it in other facets of the game.”

Is the shooting sustainable? Even with Robinson trending up after a molasses start, the answer is clearly no. That’s not the point. Nothing that’s the best something has ever been over a period of decades is going to be sustainable. What matters is the HEAT are getting the unsustainable now. When they need it most. They don’t need to be the best version of themselves, they need to be the version that always has a chance until the cavalry returns. And when you have a clear identity, a clear plan that you can execute, you have a chance.

“Spo always comes in with a gameplan and we have enough to just get that one game no matter who is on the floor or who is available,” Tyler Herro said.

Of course when you’re relying on the three and don’t have foundational pieces to get you to the rim or to the free-throw line, you’re vulnerable. Make just six threes against Memphis? You probably lose that one. Make 13 against a Cleveland team with so much length there’s practically a moat around the paint, that’s another loss. Struggling to finish in the paint at the end of a long road trip against a Detroit team desperate for a victory? Another 13 threes isn’t enough, not when you’re getting wide-open looks in the fourth. Despite the best shooting stretch in franchise history, Miami’s offense is only No. 19 in December (110.4 Offensive Rating). It’s all fine. The wins matter right now, not the rankings.

Same goes for the other side of the court. Where the HEAT have depth of shooting, they lack depth of premier individual defenders – at least in the sense that most of the elite defenders they have are the ones on the injury list. Without the personnel that enables one of the most switch-heavy defensive schemes around, Miami is running zone on 18 percent of their possessions in December, far and away the most in the league. That zone, which Spoelstra will toggle on and off with a snap of the fingers, is allowing 110.5 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would be well below average for the season. In a vacuum, not great. The Pacers and 76ers, two teams that struggled mightily to counter punch Miami’s combination of full-court pressure and variable zone looks, don’t exist in a vacuum. Three wins, all because the zone outperformed the man-to-man on the nights that it needed to.

This is all big-tent, top down perspective, which can be a bit impersonal and unfairly take the focus off the players earning the wins. Light needs to shine on Vincent, finally comfortable with his shot as he proves himself as a decision maker, and Strus, more scorer than shooter than most might realize. Omer Yurtseven is adapting to the physicality of the professional game while learning to use his length, playing a major role in Indiana shooting 11-of-35 at the rim on Tuesday. Caleb Martin posted a career night in a wonderful win over the Milwaukee Bucks before entering health and safety protocols. P.J. Tucker filled the Bam Adebayo role with career-best shooting and playmaking numbers. KZ Okpala looks like he’s been shot out of a cannon on defense as he finds his offensive touch. Herro is shouldering the half-court creation burden the team so desperately needs while Robinson is back near his 40 percent self in December. Dewayne Dedmon is as dependable as ever and shooting 9-of-14 from three in his past 11 games. Up and down the roster, everyone has contributed to a win, or wins.

The HEAT are deep, but not in the traditional sense. They have rotation-caliber players who aren’t always in the rotation, sure, but talent isn’t why they’re making their current situation work. They have depth of give-a-s***. Guys who will put in the right work, play hard, fill a role and care. Players who contribute to more than the sum of the parts. There may be older young guys mixed in, players with lower starry-sky upside than some other projects, but they play. That’s all Spoelstra, Miami’s true source of depth, needs for these short-term shifts.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if Miami averaged closer to 30 three-point attempts per game in the postseason, with maybe just a handful of zone possessions sprinkled in to throw an opponent off the beat. Their final form isn’t likely to look like they do now. All this, this stretch of thriving while surviving, is about is the can. They can play this way. They can change, night-to-night, week-to-week. They can win even when it looks like they shouldn’t.

It all counts for something, a certain je ne sais quoi possessed by teams that matter, who will matter at the most important times. You just have to win enough to mitigate the fallout on the road to the ultimate destination.