The Miami Heat faced the Phoenix Suns in a potential Finals preview on Wednesday night, and it didn’t go as planned.
Suns without Chris Paul, Heat without Jimmy Butler. There were some key advantages in Phoenix’s favor through this matchup tonight, and that starts and ends with size.
Plus Miami couldn’t counter that with offensive firepower, since missing Butler meant a total absence of attacks and rim pressure.
Anyway, let’s get into that a bit more…
#1: The Duncan Robinson-PJ Tucker offensive combination.
Watching Duncan Robinson explode for an immediate 3 triples to start this game, and 5 in the first half, definitely leaves you with some positive opinions on the shooting of Robinson. But how was he getting those looks? Some of Kyle Lowry as he glided to 5 assists in about 5 minutes of play, but the answer is PJ Tucker. Last season, it felt like Robinson had to be glued to Bam Adebayo to be effective with that DHO. A pretty great development has been that Adebayo doesn’t have to worry about it as often, since Tucker has it covered. If Robinson has an open corner look, it’s because Tucker is setting a hard hammer screen. If Robinson is dominating against drop, Tucker is laying out that single perimeter defender. Robinson was shooting that thing with confidence and deserves a ton of credit, but Tucker is so crucial for his offensive success.
#2: The Suns interior force in the first half.
To simplify this down to 24 minutes of basketball, as great of a start that the Heat had, how did the Suns just immediately storm back from that? Well, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges came out aggressive offensively for different reasons. Ayton found the openings on Miami’s planned defensive agenda in Booker-Ayton PnR’s, leading to quick slips for interior dominance. Bridges on the other hand had some favorable match-ups with Miami going small for long spurts. Bridges may not be a post-up guy, but that mid-range jumper over a smaller defender was becoming a staple. And of course, the Heat were losing the rebounding battle 27 to 15. Some of that was the product of Adebayo switching out to the perimeter, but a lot of it was back-up board dominance from JaVale McGee over Dewayne Dedmon. These two teams have similarities, but there are also major differences. That is one of them.
#3: Some minor evaluations on both sides of the ball.
Once again, there always has to be a segment to discuss some small elements that I noticed from the Heat. The first part of that included Miami’s 2-3 zone, and that relates back to Monday against Houston as well. When that zone has been utilized, the top of it doesn’t look so familiar. What used to be headlined by Gabe Vincent and Caleb Martin, who exited tonight’s game with a left knee injury, quickly shifted to Tyler Herro and Martin at the top as Victor Oladipo slotted into the lower box. Back to the offensive side of the ball, we saw the advantages in certain Heat sets. This team can trail you on the ball at a high level, meaning off-ball movement is the only way to score at a high level. For example, the Robinson shooting, that one Oladipo cut and lay-in, etc. But as soon as Miami got in some post split reps, we saw higher effective offense. Obviously you don’t throw everything out there at once, but in a potential Heat-Suns finals (?) that’ll be seen frequently.
#4: The back-up four question marks put on blast.
Caleb Martin came out in this game exactly like he has in every big game this year. Absolutely everywhere on both ends, as I tweeted in the second quarter. But as he came down on the left knee, ending his night early, that same question came right back up about this roster. Their depth may be a major part of this team’s identity, but as Martin exited, that was a blaring hole on this team. Markieff Morris has been that looming piece all year, and who knows what his role would even be when he did return, but that’s the task. Martin has locked up that job, but they’re one injury away from being very thin in the front-court, specifically with size. So a Morris return would actually be quite helpful in the long run.
#5: The importance of Jimmy Butler’s rim pressure.
This isn’t one of those things where you focus on the guy that’s missing in a team’s loss, even though it may seem that way. In actuality, it’s focusing on a player that receives some unfair criticism when broadening things to a big picture sense. Watching this Heat offense tonight without Butler, and more specifically that starting unit, one thing was more clear than anything else: Jimmy Butler *is* this team’s rim pressure. It’s one thing to bring up free throw attempts and pace dictating, but it’s another thing when they don’t have those initial paint touches to trigger all of the other actions. I brought up earlier that off-ball movement is the exploitable area here, but the only way to get a Suns defense in a frenzy is to pull them away from shooters on the initial attack. It may be as simple as they missed Butler in this one, but the interior forces and rebounding numbers were probably happening either way.
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