The Heat needed one big time, but so did the Mavericks. Two desperate ball clubs facing off, except the Heat were without Bam Adebayo.
Jimmy Butler came out firing, and the buyout acquisitions came to play, in Kevin Love and Cody Zeller.
To nobody’s surprise, the Mavs made it a clutch game, but Miami escaped.
#1: Jimmy Butler entering that mode right out the gate.
As I was discussing before the game, we will know how this thing will go right out the gate. How will we judge it? The energy and body language of Jimmy Butler. And he came out in that playoff-esque mode. Getting the switch he wanted with guard screening, meeting Kyrie Irving at the rim once or twice. We saw a heavier pick and roll dosage without the Bam Adebayo hub, and that was flowing at a great level. That Butler-Cody Zeller pick and roll was looking as comfortable as ever between the two, which is not surprising at all. Butler is a slow paced PnR ball handler, which means he excels with slow paced rollers. More openings on the roll were found in that first half. But ultimately it just came down to Butler making his mind up on his aggression and spirit. If you want to know his confidence, he shot another mid-range jumper in the second quarter and turned around before it went in. Yeah, he’s feeling it.
#2: Kevin Love new role meets a new look Kevin Love.
No Bam Adebayo meant a shifted starting lineup, but it shuffled even more than expected. Both front-court spots were changed with Cody Zeller starting for Bam and Max Strus starting at the four for Kevin Love. That essentially meant Love got the back-up 5 focused role, which is something I’ve been wanting for some time. And man did he look like a different player. He looked like a comfortable player. Shots were falling, taking advantage of mid-post switches more often with more room to operate, and by far his best defensive half I’ve seen. Taking charges off rotations, staying with the Mavericks’ primary ball-handlers in that in-between game, and contesting shots at the rim. Kevin Love is not a starting four, but I do believe he can be a solid back-up 5. And the fact that they shifted it tonight felt like a slow transition into that when Bam returns.
#3: Dealing with Luka Doncic.
It’s no secret that dealing with Luka Doncic is an experience. Take away his scoring, he finds passing lanes. Don’t send help to eliminate his play-making, he can craft his way to the basket with ease for buckets. And when you don’t have your defensive anchor in the middle who spends plenty of time switching out onto him, it makes things interesting. Although the Heat put up a ton of points, they were also giving them up on the other end as Doncic scored 23 points on 10 of 14 shooting in the first half. The Heat’s usual scheme against him went out the window, since the primary switching was immediately all drop and hedging/recovering. Neither of those coverages are a shock to Doncic. Just as Butler was doing on the other end, sometimes you just have to live with the tough shots from superstar players. To Miami’s credit, they did force 10 first half turnovers in this game to counter that, but the Luka Doncic experience just is what it is at this stage it seems.
#4: Oh hey, Cody Zeller…
As I said before, Zeller slotted into the starting five spot without Adebayo. The thing I didn’t mention was the fact he was scoring at will on the roll. Halfway through the third quarter he was up to 20 points on the night, along with 9 for 11 shooting. Well, 7 of those 9 field goals were assisted by Jimmy Butler. Yes you read that correctly. I mentioned it to start this piece but I’m going to go right back to it. There’s a continuity to speed and play-style in the pick and roll. It’s the reason Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo had such a good rhythm together in that fast paced, reactionary style. When it comes down to Butler, he moves slowly and scouts every move of the defense. He knows Zeller will be since his role is simple: screen, seal, dive. The worry of Butler’s scoring blends into a wide open roll for him every time. Those meshing styles is an interesting thing to monitor.
#5: The fourth quarter…
Six point lead entering the fourth, as Heat fans worry if it’ll be too late once Butler walked to the scorers table down the line in the quarter. They needed to survive that first stretch. And well, Kevin Love grabbed some of the facilitating reigns as a mid-post hub and the Heat’s shooting followed with 10 points in 3 minutes, taking a 112-101 lead with 9 minutes left. Fast forward to the 6 minute mark, Luka Doncic hits his specialty step back 3 to cut the lead to 9 at 119-110, Heat simply trying to hold on. A Heat basket is needed as they come out of timeout up 121-115, and Butler hits a tough hanging middy. As they flow into the defensive end, he hits the passing lane for a steal and transition dunk. Yet Heat still grasping for another stop on other end, as they continue to knock down looks. But a Butler pump fake gets Doncic in the air and to the line, followed by another trip off a physical drive. Trying to pull them to the finish line, and he did just that.