Mateo’s Hoop Diary: The Miami Heat Must Fix Some Issues in Last Third of the Season
The Heat’s loss on Saturday gives the team its first set of consecutive defeats since December. Miami has performed a 180 since its putrid start to the season, but some areas still need adjusting if the fourth or fifth seed is to be captured.
There are 28 games left on the team’s calendar. They’d need to finish 24-4 to earn the exact win total as last season. Getting there isn’t happening, and the slate for the eight remaining games in February is brutal. There are nine days off courtesy of the All-Star break that should give this outfit the rest it craves.
But if the Heat wants to avoid a first-round exit or, worse, a play-in spot, it will need at least a few solid win streaks until mid-April. Miami must outdo itself in the last third of the season to avoid a disaster scenario, which would be, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro playing their best minutes of Heat basketball ever and the team folding early.
Eight games is a minuscule sample size. Yet, in that stretch, Miami has to host the reigning back-to-back MVP and the first-seeded Nuggets on Feb. 13. The following four are on the road. First in Brooklyn. The pendulum could swing either way since Kyrie Irving is holding the team hostage, and it’s unclear if the Nets will move the malcontent before the trade deadline.
Then Miami visits the Bucks and former two-time MVP and champ Giannis Antetokounmpo. He just waxed the Heat for 35 points on 68% efficiency on Saturday. The next two are in Charlotte and Philadelphia.
The Hornets stung the Heat at home on Jan. 29. The opportunity for revenge is there, but if the Heat concedes the point of attack again, the backline defenders can’t save them.
The 76ers are not a good matchup either because it has too many weapons to break Miami’s zone coverage.
An issue that’s bedeviled the Heat all year long is its lamentable deep shooting. Max Strus was canning 41% of his triples last season. This campaign, he’s down to 34.3%.
Duncan Robinson, who has been out since Jan. 4 following finger surgery, hit 33% of his 3-point tries through 28 games. His minutes have dwindled to 17.9 a night.
Kyle Lowry is also down to 33% from long-range, and those are 63.2% of his total attempts.
With shooters playing below standards, it gives Miami’s opponents the liberty to sag off or gamble more often. If they were on target, the other team wouldn’t be able to double Jimmy Butler in the mid-post to get the ball out of his hands.
The other problem that needs to get fixed immediately is Butler’s fourth-quarter minutes management. Coach Erik Spoelstra is trying to buy JB as much rest as possible ahead of the playoffs. On many nights, the Heat can’t afford it. In losses, he’s averaging 7.7 minutes in the final period.
In defeats, Butler is logging over 10 minutes in the third frame. It makes sense. On many occasions, the Heat stumbled coming out of the intermission and were outscored in 29 third quarters. Keeping the best player on the floor is necessary to climb out of the turd period. But sometimes, the inescapable truth is that Butler will have to play at least 40 minutes for Miami to win against some rivals.
Until Miami’s sharpshooters find their touch, the group is dry on other options. Giving Butler an extra workload is a double-edged blade, however. The Heat have found themselves in 27 games decided by five points or fewer. The record in those games is 16-11.
Butler turned 33 on Sept. 14. It’s not fair to him that at his age that more is needed. But since he’s got $146 million guaranteed over the next three seasons, there isn’t a more suitable candidate for sacrificing his body.
In Miami’s last two games, losses in New York and Milwaukee, Butler combined for 13.8 fourth-quarter minutes and didn’t take a free throw in that span. When he checked in for the last time at Madison Square Garden, the Heat was down 10 points with seven minutes and change left. On Saturday, when Butler came in for Strus, the squad was down six with over six minutes left. Miami had converted only 36% of its attempts before Butler was inserted in Milwaukee.
He is the closer and best playmaker on the team. Butler has the highest assist percentage at 23.6%. This would put him in the 96th percentile for his position, per Cleaning the Glass. Even above the NBA’s second-leading paint scorer, Bam Adebayo, Butler is still the Heat’s best option to get to the line or draw a double team and hit the open man.
It’s not true that regular-season games don’t matter. If a group doesn’t lock up home court and stay above .500 on the road, it shouldn’t be taken seriously. Without #22, Miami’s record is 8-7, but with him in the lineup, it has lost 18 games.
One of the reasons the Heat had a deep playoff run last season run is because it was the east’s first seed. Round one was against the Atlanta Hawks, a team with more holes than a sponge. In the conference semifinals, the matchup was the 76ers without Embiid for the first two games. The Heatles were then taken out in round three by the Celtics, a group two wins away from a title.
What good will all this rest do if Miami is instantly faced with a bad matchup on the road after the regular season?
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