By Avi Tyagi
To recap the Miami Heat’s playoffs to date, I would like to first establish a few contentious rulings.
Over the course of the last year, I meticulously created my own version of All-Star teams dating back to 2018-19. It involved poring over data and rewatching film on many players who I had spent less time watching than I should have. When official All-NBA teams and All-Star teams are created, an important factor tends to be games played and team winning percentage at the time of the vote. With voting being completed at season’s halfway mark, this can lead to perplexing results, such as Zion Williamson being voted in as a starter while several others with more minutes played were left off for missing time. Additionally, those awards ballots actually tend to skew conversation about teams once the playoffs arrive and all hands are on deck. Therefore, I create my All-Star Teams right before the break with a loose restriction of 900 minutes played. It is necessary to create a lower limit somewhere because a strong 10-game sample before the break is not definitive enough to validate All-Star performance. At 900 minutes, most metrics begin to stabilize and most of the best players in the league can clear that mark even with a few injury breaks. It also ensures that players will not be penalized for timing of an injury. If two All-Star worthy players both play 1700 minutes over the course of the season, amounting to approximately 50 games, and both players played at least 900 minutes over the first 58-60 games of the season, they can both be All-Stars by my designation. In real voting scenarios, 25 missed games before the break often guarantees a missed All-Star berth, even if said player finishes the season with 55+ games played. This system is not meant to award All-Star weekend berths, it is simply meant to identify who the best players were over the first half of the season. Much like the real All-Star game, alternates are selected in occurrence of injuries and positional requirements were met. This season, with Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Zion Williamson injured and unable to participate in the game, 27 players were recognized as All-Stars by my methodology (13 from the East, 14 from the West). Here were my 27 selections:
West: Devin Booker, Ja Morant, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, LeBron James, Luka Doncic, Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis, Jaren Jackson Jr., Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Zion Williamson, De’Aaron Fox
East: Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Jrue Holiday, Trae Young, Darius Garland, DeMar DeRozan, Bam Adebayo, Tyrese Haliburton
By the same criteria, I created All-NBA teams this season. Watching all of the candidates, I created 3 teams based on per-game regular season performance. Positional rules still applied and every candidate played at least 1,650 minutes so there was still a minimum standard (even if few players would be excluded by such a lenient marker). 1650 minutes is 50 games with an average of 33 minutes played (a common amount for starters). Here are the teams:
First Team: Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic
Second Team: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luka Doncic, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid
Third Team: Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, LeBron James, Jayson Tatum, Anthony Davis
There is perhaps no better way to start this playoff review than by discussing the Miami Heat’s stars. On a per-game basis, I had the Miami Heat having 2 All-Stars and with Jimmy Butler as a 2nd team All-NBA selection. Despite that, this Miami roster finished the season with a mediocre -0.1 Cleaning the Glass net rating, 20th best league-wide. How can a team have two All-Stars yet also have such poor regular season performance go from a team down 3 with 3 minutes and 45 seconds left in the final play-in game to being an NBA Finals participant all within the same season? There are 6 key factors we can keep in mind: Star Power, the Regular Season Supporting Cast, Organizational Culture, Roster Changes, Tactics, and Variance.
Everything starts with Jimmy Butler. He is the most enigmatic superstar in a league that fuels its media coverage primarily on scoring efforts and gaudy point totals. Jimmy Butler’s regular seasons are consistently better than they are given credit for because of the way that he chooses to play. 2022-23 was a Butler masterpiece. Jimmy once again improved his game. The former couch-surfing-by-necessity high schooler turned junior college athlete has always consistently improved his game year over year without ever sacrificing his defensive intensity as a marauding roamer and isolation defender. This year was not different. A career 40% shooter from the midrange, Jimmy canned 48% of his middys this season en route to a career best 65% true shooting percentage. On a per-game basis, his rim pressure as a scorer, improved jumper, excellent passing, top-tier defensive playmaking in passing lanes, and the calm demeanor of his play style (sporting a miniscule 8.2% turnover rate) was worthy of a 2nd team All-NBA forward spot. His complete apathy for stepping on the court at the All-Star game (and the nature of his exits at previous destinations) may have cost him an All-Star spot in the coaches’ voting but he was by all means an All-Star and All-NBA performer even within the regular season. On low volume, (only 1.6 3s attempted per game), Butler still made 35% of his 3s in the regular season and is a career 84% from the line. For all the talk about playoff Jimmy, most of what being playoff Jimmy really entails is purposefully taking a greater offensive load, turning up the volume on mismatch hunting and 3-point shot searching, and becoming the primary ball-handler and decision maker who sets the course for most Miami actions. In the regular season, Butler likes to pace himself so as to avoid postseason fatigue while also promoting an egalitarian offense so that his supporting cast may use the available reps for development purposes and building good habits for the playoffs. Which brings me to Bam. Bam Adebayo is a special defensive player, a true jack of all trades, and a continually improving offensive player. Jimmy Butler’s choice to maintain a lower usage rate in the regular season is directly related to letting Bam slowly explore the studio space and improve his own playmaking and scoring skills. While Bam’s scoring statistics appeared roughly the same as past seasons and his defensive activity statistics were actually lower than past seasons, context was an important factor and Bam made one tangible and important development: he improved the fluidity of his pull-up jump shot. This season, Bam Adebayo shot a career best 80.6% from the line and 50% on shots between 10-16 feet (increases of 5% and 10% respectively over past seasons). In combination with Jimmy’s improvement, Miami’s offense had better theoretical spacing, yet their team trudged through a truly mediocre regular season. Why? The supporting cast.
Miami’s supporting cast had poor regular seasons from a scoring perspective. As a team, the Heat shot 83.1% from the line (2nd best in the league) yet 34.4% from 3 (4th worst league wide). No other team had near the same disparity and much of it came down to secondary shot-making. Kyle Lowry, Max Strus, and Duncan Robinson shot 35% or less from 3. Those are 3 of the Heat’s 4 best spacers shooting below league average. Miami purposefully loves to run handoff actions and other complex off-ball actions to get Strus or Robinson difficult but open 3-point shots. When spare few of those shots actually went in, the entire court condensed for the Miami Heat offense. Duncan spent much of the season glued to the bench and correspondingly, Bam lost his most reliable handoff partner, nullifying one of their best actions. On defense, offense after offense thrived by luring Bam out to guard ball handlers on the perimeter and tic-tac-toeing the defenders behind them, primarily by attacking Tyler Herro or an overmatched Strus guarding forwards. Bam had fewer chances to affect the play and disrupt passing lanes and as such, the Miami defense suffered as well. As a final summarizing point, only two consistent members of the Miami Heat rotation had above average true shooting percentages: Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. That’s the story of the 2022-23 Miami Heat regular season.
All the while, the Heat Culture attitude stayed strong. For a team that once started the 2016-17 regular season 11-30 only to finish at .500 by the end of the year, staying united and staying disciplined is nothing new. It’s an organizational paradigm and Erik Spoelstra is the face of the movement. There are a few key rules that players must adhere to on the court, and the organization as a whole strives to uphold them. Every player has to be comfortable losing their spot to the next man up if they’re outworked and outhustled. Defensively, the teamwide objectives are to keep opponents from easily driving to the hoop with their strong hand, to hound any oncoming drivers in the passing lanes, and to communicate and scatter out to the correct rotations after denying easy baskets at the rim. In the regular season, even with mixed results, Miami could never be blamed for a lack of effort. Even Herro, definitively their worst defender, always tried his best to remain disciplined and follow the game plan. Coach Spoelstra has built that foundation over the years. Even amongst playoff teams, the instincts, communication, and effort from every player on court is a relative rarity. This team was similarly talented last season with only two key rotation members no longer factoring in (Tucker and Herro). Those personnel changes have made a substantial difference to the team’s play style and rotations.
PJ Tucker was their best forward defender last season and Tyler Herro (get well soon!) has been their 2nd best shot creator for the last 2 seasons. Yet their absences have actually helped unlock a new style for Heat basketball. Even an offensively engaged Tucker was not feared when away from the corners. With an 11.7% usage rate (his best since 2015-16), Tucker was given more space to roam and create shots inside the paint, but there was an opportunity cost. Tucker performed admirably and stonewalled offensive shot creators on defense, but he’s been a reticent shooter against closeouts for years and could not consistently defeat closeouts. As such, he was the perfect target for Robert Williams to roam off of for the Celtics’ 2-big lineups. Herro was and is the flip side of the coin. In the regular season, Herro created shots against standard defenses and larger bench rotations. His perimeter shot-making covered for the inability to generate consistent paint touches and rim attempts. On defense, playing Herro forced 2 problems. 1st: Herro necessitated a dependence on zone and reduced the margin for error from other Heat defenders. While 4 players could try to “next” and help Herro out, it required focus and concentration at all times and if any of the other defenders were also struggling, too many holes appeared for modern offenses to create scoring opportunities off of. The 2nd issue: Max Strus and Duncan Robinson were forced to guard up against small forwards. In the ‘22-23 regular season, 86% of Strus’ minutes came at the 3 (according to basketball reference). On defense, his NBA.com defensive matchup data featured names such as Keegan Murray, Grant Williams, Kyle Kuzma, Jabari Smith Jr., and Jalen Williams. Max Strus is more than capable of guarding many of those spot-up threats. The issues were the overall lack of team size. With a point guard, Strus, and Herro often sharing the court, Miami Heat lineups were collectively too small and opponents with bigger wings and active offensive rebounders were able to repeatedly crack their defense with sheer size and speed. Robinson was in the same situation as Strus, only as a worse defender, Robinson lineups with either Herro or Strus beside him were continuously carved up in the regular season. In 198 minutes, the Miami Heat had a 115.3 defensive rating with Herro and Robinson on the court and a 117.9 defensive rating when Strus and Robinson shared minutes. The addition of Kevin Love helped solidify the Heat’s rotation from 3-5 with minutes primarily divvied up between Butler, Caleb Martin, Love, and Bam, leaving only a few minutes for Haywood Highsmith and Cody Zeller. Strus and Robinson could now alternate at the 2-guard spot and be protected at all times by 3 larger defenders and either Vincent or Lowry intrepidly taking the primary perimeter responsibilities. Miami’s zone became more ferocious with more size and length on the court at all times. 6-foot-7 Robinson and 6-foot-5 Strus become much more fearsome defensively when they’re simply standing in passing lanes and creating the allusion of a crowd at all times. Buoyed by Butler, Vincent, and Lowry causing havoc, Miami has been arguably the best defense in the playoffs. The Heat lead all playoff teams in charges per game and have forced the second most deflections per game. At the same time, the Heat also finished with the 4th fewest shots allowed to opponents within 10 feet of the hoop, behind only the Clippers, Philadelphia, and two teams frequently sporting double big lineups (Milwaukee and New York). Defensively, the pillars of the Heat defense have been excellent, but the tactical changes have helped nurture growth further.
The Heat’s offensive sets have remained similar to years past, but with a few changes. Butler and Bam being able to shoot 3s and mid-rangers respectively has opened up more of the court for playoff matchups. Against the Bucks, Miami rarely had to deviate from their primary offensive plan. Butler rarely ever faced doubles and was allowed to cook, while Strus and Duncan Robinson torched Milwaukee’s screen navigation and drop coverage with a barrage of 3s. Milwaukee dared Jimmy to beat Jrue and Khris over and over again and counted on Miami’s poor regular season 3-point shooting to continue, even with wide-open attempts off of handoffs or Butler passes. Spoiler alert: it did not work. Against the Knicks, Miami trudged through a difficult series with Jimmy’s aching ankle, but were successfully able to target Brunson in enough actions to generate some offensive firepower. The Celtics were the perfect foil for Erik Spoelstra and company. The Celtics’ soft-switching often let Jimmy just pick his defender of choice, have the corresponding teammate set a soft screen and veer out to create another off-ball action or slip the screen entirely, and Butler would be left with passing options and the matchup of his choice. After going up against Jrue Holiday and Quentin Grimes, what chance did the smaller Derrick White have? The C’s struggled to find any adjustments against Jimmy and refused to double. The double-big lineup had no one to roam off of and Mazzula’s lack of trust in Grant Williams’ offense led to a Game 1 DNP. If the Celtics’ tried drop, Miami would run an off-ball action leading to Bam setting a crushing screen on a trailing guard and leaving a searing hot 3-point shooter wide open with plenty of space. Whenever Horford or Rob Williams hedged or played up to the level, Miami kept it moving and tiki-taka-d their way through combustible rotations until an easy shot emerged. In game 3, Butler was doubled on his mid-post, clear-out isos with the hope that 3 Celtics could zone up against 4 spaced Heat spacers. Bam simply cut into space as the double arrived to completely disrupt the defensive coverage and Miami once again cut through the Celtics like butter. By the time the Celtics grew comfortable at figuring out how to send doubles to stall the Miami offense to make the matchups more of a toss-up, Miami was already up 3-0. Even with Gabe Vincent hurt, some subpar shooting performances from the previously ridiculously on-point Miami 3-point shooting, and Derrick White’s remarkable game winner, Miami simply weathered the storm. They brought Haywood Highsmith off the bench (instead of Zeller or Love) as a backup big option capable of being a primary on Brown or Tatum as need be. They attacked Jaylen Brown’s dribble and created 8 turnovers off well-timed stunts. Most importantly, with the season on the line, Miami centralized their offense around Butler, Bam, and Caleb Martin. That trio combined for 223 touches, their most of any game this series. With that usage, the triumvirate accounted for 66 points and another 19 points worth of assists to other teammates, a staggering 85 points out of the 103 total. That’s how you win a Game 7.
Defensively, Miami’s current personnel has been the perfect foil for the top-2 seeds in the East. Giannis and the Bucks’ offense struggled somewhat with Middleton hurt for most of the season. His lessened efficiency (only 60% True Shooting compared to 64% in 2022) was a corollary of poorly spaced floors and Giannis’ determination to create offense by driving through walls of defenders at times. The rules have adapted to allow offensive players to practically truck opponents for free throws at times and while Giannis generated free throws from the action, it also backfired when no calls led to travels, poor shots, missed reads, and easy transition opportunities for opponents. The reason Milwaukee did not pop up as a contender based on my midseason contender criteria was due to their offensive deficiencies. Just because the team employs Jrue Holiday, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Khris Middleton does not mean that every offensive action must be based on one of those 3 first beating their man off the dribble for the team to generate an advantage. Every year, build a wall has been able to succeed. Even in an injured East and against a Nets team with Harden on one hamstring and Kyrie injured, Milwaukee rarely managed to created switches and consistently attack mismatches. The personnel have been so talented that they have been able to get away with it, but it was not a sustainable form of offense. Against Bam Adebayo, Erik Spoelstra, and the armada of Heat defenders, the strategy flopped decisively. Bam against Giannis at the rim was not an action that Milwaukee could score off enough and Holiday and Middleton struggled against the stunts of Miami’s snarling perimeter defenders. Watching Jordan Nwora earn minutes with the Pacers as an offensive sparkplug capable of scoring as a PNR ball-handler, cutter, and off of screens shone a light on the lack of player development and the stagnant offensive attack. Even Nwora could have been of some help against Miami. With Connaughton, Portis, and Allen all being standstill shooters who don’t attack closeouts and create for others, any injuries to Milwaukee’s Big-3 made offense an impossible task. Two series later, the Celtics found Miami to be a similar Kryptonite to championship aspirations.
With so many lineups built around incorporating Smart, White, Horford, and Rob Williams, Tatum and Brown had to take on an increased offensive scoring burden. The dynamic duo is still solidly in their mid-20s with plenty of room to grow and both have struggled against high-level, athletic wing defenders in the past. Against Philadelphia, Tatum was more than capable of cooking the smaller Melton or the slower-footed Tobias Harris. Embiid caught in a drop or on a switch practically played into his hands. But, Tatum’s not the shiftiest or quickest by nature and often struggles to generate easy shots against premier defenders. Much as it was in the Finals against a supercharged Andrew Wiggins, Tatum found it more difficult to generate any easy looks against Miami’s wings. To his credit, Tatum self-generated shots effectively and was the only consistent scoring threat for the C’s for most of the series. Only Jimmy Butler provided the strength, size, speed, and disruptive hands necessary to stifle Tatum for stretches. Additionally, there were several instances where a stalled Tatum attack led to difficult shot attempts, but which Tatum showed himself more than capable of making. Brown’s explosiveness might have portended for more success in these matchups, but his handle is still a work in progress and he had a far tougher time creating jumpers (perhaps also due to injuries) or at attacking the amorphous Miami defense. Brown has improved dramatically over the past few seasons. Yet, the same concerns outlined in the midseason piece about the Eastern Conference contenders have remained pertinent today https://notradeclause.com/biggest-need-among-contenders-part-2-post-trade-deadline-eastern-contenders/. Tatum and Brown have thrived in the comfiest confines of the NBA, with 5-6 starters flanking them in the regular season. Forced to create against elite defenders and with their defensively-oriented personnel shut down, Jaylen found it tougher to prosper. Injuries to Brogdon nullified his presence as a shot creator and Marcus Smart met his match in Gabe Vincent. While Miami could rely on Vincent, Martin, Jimmy, and the Bam-Duncan handoff duo to generate offense, only Tatum, Brown, and Derrick White could be counted on to create reliable offense from match to match over the course of the series. None of those 3 profile as particularly instinctive passers at the moment. Over time, they will likely be able to make reads quicker as passers and proceed with better process in crunch time offensive scenarios. But for the last 2 seasons, the path to defeating the Celtics has been based on slowing down the Jays with 2 elite wing defenders. Miami has those.
Ultimately, we can’t talk about Miami without talking about the magical fortune of 3-point shooting variance. As stated previously, Miami was definitely better than the 27th ranked 3-point shooting team by percentage that they finished the regular season as. The number 1 shooting team by percentage in 2021-22 does not simply sink from 37.9% to 34.4% just because P.J. Tucker went to Philadelphia. All season, variance neutralized their best shooters and led to their offense performing worse than what may be expected. Even so, their shooting in the playoffs has been ridiculous. Against Milwaukee, 5(!) Heat players finished with a True Shooting percentage of 62% or higher. For context, that would rank in the top 20th percentile leaguewide over the course of the season, slightly better than what Tatum’s true shooting percentage finished for the season and slightly worse than Donovan Mitchell. It’s an elite mark for a regular season team, much less for the playoffs. Max Strus, Kevin Love, Jimmy Butler, and Caleb Martin finished at 62.1%, 65.3%, 67.1%, and 78.4%, respectively. The team as a whole finished with a 62.7% average true shooting percentage and shot 45% from 3. The leader in the clubhouse, Duncan Robinson. After going through the season shooting 32.8% from 3, far below his usual standards, Duncan made 14 of 19 3s when it counted most and finished the series with an unheard of 92.7% true shooting percentage. The Conference Finals series was no different. Miami shot 43% from 3 as a team only almost 30 3s per game. While that was partially driven by good offensive structure and excellent playmaking from Jimmy and Bam, 43% as a team is still well above league average and was a key component to victory.
And so now, we arrive at the NBA Finals. Miami’s awe-inspiring playoff run meets its greatest foe to date: the well-rested, MVP-driven Denver Nuggets. For the 2nd series in a row, I expect Miami to finally lose. This time, I’m far more confident. Denver has won 7 of the 8 meetings against the Jimmy Butler-era Heat. Their collective size makes for a tougher matchup than any previous opponent. Miami has been able to go small to take advantage of more immobile big men and force opponents to play smaller to keep up with them. As a result, Butler and Bam have been able to feast in mismatches on smaller players on offense and hamper the opponent’s attacks by presenting arms in passing lanes. Denver’s not the best matchup against that style of attack. Miami might be able to score by hunting Jokic and Murray with mismatches, PnRs, and backside handoff actions but outscoring Denver will be a tall task. Jokic is the ultimate zone beater. He can simply set himself down at the nail, survey the court, and pick out open shooters and cutters to his heart’s desire. Miami plays with 6-foot-7 Butler as their 2nd biggest player on the court. At almost all times, the Nuggets will have at least 3 taller players on the court. Aaron Gordon, as previously covered: https://notradeclause.com/denver-nuggets-best-in-the-west/, was an excellent stopper against more static KD isolations. He might be the perfect defender to take on Butler 1v1 when Jimmy clears the floor and goes to his favorite side pick and rolls. Vincent, Strus, and Lowry will have a far more difficult time keeping up with Murray as he races around screens and behind Jokic for handoff 3s. Without hot 3-point shooting, this might finally be the series that Miami doesn’t have the answers to. Yet, as they’ve shown time and time again throughout this playoff run, whether it be due to their star power, coaching, culture, or shot-making, Miami will find every small margin and compete to their fullest potential.