The Miami HEAT are 15-11 and tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference after a shorthanded victory over the Milwaukee Bucks. Here's what we've been noticing and noting:
A HISTORY OF GIANNIS
If you were watching the HEAT hold Giannis Antetokounmpo to 15 points on 4-of-13 shooting during their improbable and wild victory last Wednesday, you might have thought to yourself, ‘You know what, they seem to do this fairly often.’
If you thought that, then good on you because you were correct.
Here’s a handful of Antetokounmpo’s averages over the past three seasons, and then what those numbers look like against the HEAT during that same stretch (including playoffs, given that both Miami and Milwaukee have a one-sided series victory to their names in this matchup):
Effective Field-Goal %: 58.7 -> 49.6
Points-Per-Shot: 1.22 -> 1.02
Bucks Points-Per-Possession On Antetokounmpo Touches: 1.05 -> 0.92
For all three categories, those are the lowest marks in the league with the exception of the Golden State Warriors who have faced Antetokounmpo just twice in three years. The HEAT have played him 16 times.
Better yet, Antetokounmpo has played 147 regular season games so far over these past three seasons. In only nine of those did he have a Game Score – Basketball-Reference.com’s metric which grades out individual games – below 12 while playing at least 15 minutes. The HEAT have four of those games, including the two lowest. Last Wednesday was Antetokounmpo’s second-worst game, by Game Score, of the past three seasons.
If you’ve seen your fair share of this particular matchup, this should all track. Miami’s base scheme is one built on the principal of keeping the ball in front and out of the paint, applying help wherever necessary even at the cost of leaving a shooter open. Against Antetokounmpo, they take this to the extreme.
But they also had Bam Adebayo, one of the three or four best defenders on the planet for a powerhouse downhill athlete like the two-time MVP, in those games. And Adebayo is out right now. So it came to 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker to play the brick-wall-on-wheels.
Watch these two plays and how Tucker uses his body to check Antetokounmpo’s forays into the paint, ceding ground on the body blows but never an angle for a follow-up move to the rim.
Tucker Defending Giannis Notebook
“Especially in the post, when Giannis tried to go at him, he timed those chest bumps or he didn’t let him through the middle,” Omer Yurtseven said. “If he gave him a little bit of ground, now he has plenty of room to spin baseline if he sees you budging. Now we didn’t have to double him. Now he’s just one-on-one, we can take the cutters from the baseline to the slot. It makes everyone’s job much easier. He usually draws double teams through that, but [Tucker] was able to guard Giannis one-on-one.”
The Bucks have been held below an Offensive Rating of 105 eight times this season. The HEAT have two of those. They’ve been held below 20 assists six times. Miami has two of those as well. And Milwaukee has just five games this season with fewer than 12 makes at the rim. Miami also has two of those.
Yes, the Bucks proved last postseason that they had answers for Miami’s scheme as they swept the HEAT out of the first round. Yes, they missed a bunch of good looks from three and did not appear to dip too far into their creative arsenal on Wednesday. But all these numbers matter. Miami has a body of evidence against the best player on one of their main competitor’s for the right to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. They have the scheme. They have Adebayo. And now they have Tucker.
HOW DEFENSIVE LIFE HAS CHANGED
As impressive as the HEAT’s shorthanded victory over Milwaukee was, it was pretty atypical for how Erik Spoelstra has handled the recent stretch without Adebayo and Markieff Morris and mostly without Jimmy Butler. Closing with a lineup of Kyle Lowry-Max Strus-Caleb Martin-KZ Okpala-Tucker might not be something we ever see him do again, for one, but Miami also hardly went to their zone defense at all.
Through November 29, when Adebayo injured his thumb against the Denver Nuggets, the HEAT had used zone is about six percent of their total possessions. In the four games between then and at home against Milwaukee, their zone usage spiked to 21 percent – more than three times as often.
With their normal rotation, Spoelstra often went to zone when Dewayne Dedmon came in with the backup unit. But with Dedmon starting, the HEAT were throwing out a token zone possession or two early before going back to their man (with more drop and blitz coverage rather than their usual switching) for long stretches. Instead of Dedmon, the title of Mr. Zone fell to Omer Yurtseven (playing when Dedmon sat and Spoelstra didn’t go small with Tucker at center). Of the 121 defensive possessions Yurtseven played in those four games, over 40 percent of them were spent in zone.
Miami did allow about 1.09 points per possession in those minutes, which is about league average extrapolated over an entire season. That may not sound like much, especially with how their zone has put a stranglehold on opposing attacks in the past, but when you consider that Yurtseven is a rookie with barely 100 minutes to his name manning the most important defensive position on the floor, league average is a massive win.
Of course not every minute was made equal. Yurtseven and the zone excelled against Indiana only to struggle mightily against Milwaukee the following night. As he strives to earn his zone badge, Yurtseven says he’s been especially focused on how to defend the high-post when teams flash their big men into the middle of the floor – the most vulnerable spot in any 2-3 look.
“Once they get it [at the free-throw line] the baseline cutters are there and I have to play in between,” Yurtseven said. “Make whoever catches it in the high post make a contested two. That has been the biggest adjustment in terms of making the catch higher, further from the rim and also being able to defend all the cutters.
“You’re playing two, you can’t commit either way. You try and deny the pass while making sure whoever has the ball doesn’t get a wide open shot. When he goes up for the shot you have to get a late contest on it.”
It’s a small thing, but perhaps most notable is that Yurtseven didn’t pick up a single defensive three-second call. You put some inexperienced players in a zone and you practically expect them to pick up an illegal defense call at the snap of a fingers. But watch Yurtseven manage his three seconds on this possession, getting two feet out of the paint and tagging cutters to cleanse himself and refresh the clock:
Omer Zone Cleanse
“Spo pays specific attention to it,” Yurtseven said. “He does a great job teaching that, as well as all the assistant coaches. It’s just about getting both feet out. The good thing about that zone is I have a chance, whenever there’s a pick-and-roll, since the guards are handling that I can clear out on the other side. Boom, come back in and start over my three seconds again. I’ve been doing a good job but it’s about the coaches staying in my ear.”
CALEB MARTIN TINKERING AND TWEAKING
It sure feels like Caleb Martin’s career-high 28 points against the Bucks was one of the best games a player on a two-way contract has ever had – somewhat amusingly now, years later, Garrison Mathews scored 28 against Miami while on a two-way – but Martin isn’t your usual two-way contract having been on a standard deal before with Charlotte.
That means Martin has had some time to tinker with his game. While confidence was the first thing he pointed to after hitting a career-high six threes, particularly the confidence his coaches and teammates give him to shoot the ball, on follow-up he noted that he’s been making an effort to smooth out his mechanics – a process that started before signing with Miami last summer.
“One of the main things I’ve tried to really focus on was just getting it out early. Get that hitch out of the top and make it one motion. My mechanics I’m working on, but a lot of that stuff is for the summer so you’re not tweaking too much in the season.
“My main focus is definitely one full motion and getting it out early instead of holding it at the top.”
First, here’s a compilation of Martin, with Charlotte, taking jumpers from the right wing during a campaign in which he finished 24.8 percent from deep on over 100 attempts.
Caleb Martin Hornets Shooting
Now here’s Martin this season taking shots from the exact same spots.
Caleb Martin HEAT Shooting
Notice a difference? In the first video you can see there’s a bit of a pause in his motion when the ball gets above his head. That pause isn’t completely gone when he’s in a HEAT uniform, but you can see what he’s talking about as the motion looks a bit more fluid.
Martin has been remarkably efficient when he puts the ball on the floor, producing 1.19 points-per-drive per Second Spectrum’s tracking data (62 drives). The defense is there as he’s played a high-energy smallball four to good effect. If he can smooth out his shot enough to where he’s a league average or better shooter, Miami might have themselves not just a diamond in the rough, but potentially a rotation-caliber player even when the team is at full strength.
-Miami’s 22 threes against Milwaukee tied a franchise-high, a mark they had previously hit twice – all games coming in the past two years. The HEAT are 2-1 when hitting 22 threes, with their loss also coming against the Bucks in the second-to-last game of the previous season. That game, when many thought the Bucks would rest their regulars but they instead went full bore, ultimately led to Miami playing the Bucks in the first round.
-KZ Okpala was a plus-23 against the Bucks in 32 minutes (his career-high in minutes is 33). It was the first time in Okpala’s career that he finished plus-20 or better, and the fourth time he finished plus-10. Keep an eye on that number moving forward if Okpala continues to earn minutes. If Miami’s continues to win the time that he’s on the floor, something might be cooking.
-Having spent much of the early part of the season playing the table-setter for Adebayo and Butler, and subsequently posting his lowest usage rate in years, Lowry’s usage is up to 21.3 percent over the past 10 games. That’s nearly exactly what it was last year in Toronto.
-If Duncan Robinson (36.7 percent from three over his past five games) plays against Chicago tonight, he’ll tie Glen Rice for the franchise record in consecutive games played at 174. That may not seem like much, but that degree of consistent availability matters in this age of rest and recovery.