The Miami Heat are the 1st seed in the East at this moment in time. They sit 13 games over .500, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry, and Tyler Herro have only played 11 of the 47 games together this season, and the guys on the lower half of the roster have emerged.
We’ve seen so many times in the past when certain teams get hot in the regular season, but playoff ball is just strictly dependent on the right match-up. So what makes the Heat fall outside of that category?
Well, the simple answer was portrayed to start this piece, since there’s always that element that a fully healthy roster can elevate this group even further, plus the late addition of Victor Oladipo pretty soon.
But the more important answer is that Erik Spoelstra has found some things along the way this season. Things that wouldn’t have been found if guys didn’t go down.
For starters, we’ve seen a gem in Omer Yurtseven emerge, who plugged right into the starting lineup as that expected filler, and performed at a very high level to generate some wins throughout the month of December.
A guy on a two-way contract named Caleb Martin turned into a legitimate rotation player, locking down opposing teams’ best players and scoring the basketball at a rate many didn’t think he could at this level.
A couple of previous two-way projects, in Gabe Vincent and Max Strus, have taken some major steps in their development so far this season as well, due to Strus’ continued elite shooting and trusted skill-set, and Vincent’s improved three-ball, increased court vision, continued defense, and general all-around play.
But that list of developmental players isn’t the main reason that this team is better suited after the previous events. It’s the things Erik Spoelstra was forced into with those specific players.
As mentioned before, Adebayo goes down to begin the month of December with a lengthy time period ahead, but how does this Heat team survive on the defensive end without their anchor?
Well, as Spoelstra has said a million times this season, it’s next man up.
Yurtseven stepping in meant a total shift was coming from the usual switching that occurs in a Miami Heat defensive scheme. And although the switching bothered some observers at times, it led to one of the better defenses in the league for a decent period of time.
With the big man combo of Yurtseven and Dewayne Dedmon, Miami had to blend strictly into a drop coverage team, which at first screams defensive comfortability for other teams to expose. Does Spoelstra have as many tricks in his bag on that end as he once did with Adebayo?
The answer was yes.
We saw him change things rotationally or through match-ups, but the immediate trust to blitz against top tier guards showed the solidity of this team’s back-line rotations and defensive mentality.
So, how did this change put Miami in a better spot moving forward?
Well, Spo has clearly shown that he’s not afraid to shift the defensive coverage from possession to possession, but seeing Miami survive with Yurtseven as a blitzer or off-ball mover, tells me the Adebayo defensive play-book just opened up.
It means that offenses will never get comfortable. Adebayo can drop and blitz, switch and double, or lay back as the free safety in the zone. These conversations are easier to have when Vincent and Martin are hounding guys at the point of attack, but that 7 week hiatus from Adebayo may have changed some perspective on that side of the floor.
And more importantly, that is something I believe Erik Spoelstra has already slipped in his pocket to return to come playoff time.
On the offensive end, many things just simply come down to player production at the right time, since this is a team that has quite the amount of options down the line if one guy isn’t performing up to their standards.
But as much as adjustments have been made on the defensive end all year, double that for their offensive structure.
No Adebayo and Butler is a hard combination to be without when running an offense. Luckily for the Heat, PJ Tucker stepped up in a way that it almost felt like they weren’t even gone, since they utilized him in a very similar fashion. (Which makes absolutely zero sense in theory)
They would line Tucker up on the strong-side wing with his back to the basket, and flow into their heavy movement offense with stagger screens, back-cuts, pin-downs, hand-offs, and more. That usage shot up even more when they’ve been without Kyle Lowry, which hasn’t been for too long aside from this past week.
But figuring out that Tucker can play in these different spots, and expanding his offensive role little by little, can really change things when they get everybody back. For one, staggering lineups is truly unnecessary when looking at the amount of creators they have on the roster, but it also allows them to put guys like Adebayo in more score-friendly spots, Lowry in higher frequency off-ball spaces, and Butler can essentially split “carries” with Tucker in many ways.
Along with finding that Tucker can play within a bigger role, they found some places to insert him into along the way as well. Something I’ve brought up frequently is Miami’s recent offensive base, which I briefly displayed when discussing the role of Tucker previously.
As seen above, it leaves Miami with a simple insert pass to a guy like Butler on the wing, four guys clear-out to the weak-side for the action to begin, and chaos quickly follows. A bunch of misdirections are used in the process to try and put the defense in a very awkward position, eventually leading to an open cutter around the basket or a three-point attempt on one of the flares.
This may seem oddly specific and unrelated to the original topic of Miami finding things in the process of being without top players, but I highly doubt we would have seen such a diverse offensive playbook in the event that Adebayo and Butler were healthy for the majority of the season thus far.
And yet, that’s what makes this Heat team much more promising as they move forward, and much different than last season’s team: they’re a diverse group now.
Lastly, we’ve still yet to see one of the main elements to this Heat offense due to the inability to get them at full strength: mid-range play.
As much as they’ve previously been a super high spot-up three-ball team, they’ve been last in frequency within that category for quite some time now. And with three of their four best players having a high talent for the mid-range jumper, while Butler has it at times, that was the theme of this team coming in.
Even when Adebayo went down, many of those things carried over. Herro and Lowry still attacked drop coverages at a high level like they usually do, but the mid-range numbers dropped from 15 a game to 10.5 a game over that span.
Why is that?
Well as much as Spoelstra can emulate everything on this roster, that rolling pull-up threat was just no where to be found on this team. Tucker developed a nice looking floater, but that’s not a mid-range roller that they were missing. Yurtseven and Dedmon don’t have that in their bag, it’s one of Martin’s only offensive deficits, and Markieff Morris may be the only one to obtain it, but he hasn’t played in a very long time.
Now, as Adebayo returns to the lineup, who exits at this very moment?
Lowry and Herro, as Herro entered the protocols and Lowry has been away from the team due to personal reasons, which also could be the much needed time off this season.
So let’s take a look around the roster again, what guards can fill the ball-handler pull-up void without those back-court guys?
Duncan Robinson and Strus definitely aren’t the guys for the job, Butler hasn’t been hugely efficient with that this year, and Vincent has actually done it to a decent degree, but not enough for defenses to worry about it.
The point is that it’s been a constant adjustment period within one of the team’s biggest offensive strengths, but they’ve found a way.
And now if that element isn’t falling, like what happened against Milwaukee in last year’s post-season, alternatives are being found sooner than before.
Talking about getting whole with top level talent is one thing, but getting the pieces back together to experiment within lineups and sets is another thing.
As I said prior, this Heat team sits atop the East, even though they’ve experienced a never-ending cycle of guys exiting and others returning.
“It’s best case scenario when you’re able to learn in a win,” said Duncan Robinson after the Heat’s win over the Lakers. And that right there is the theme of their season so far.
They’ve been in rough spots, picked up on new players and schemes for the long haul, yet still find themselves in the one seed in the Eastern Conference.
There’s no doubt this Heat team is better suited for a lengthy late-season run following the pick-ups they have made along the way.
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