How the heat got their bubble groove back

It feels like a lifetime ago, but we’re just 13 months away from the Heat losing to the Lakers in the NBA Finals. After a disappointing 2020-21 season, Miami went through some changes to the team and the system, giving it a 7-3 start to the season and a tie for first place in the East. Here are five thoughts on the Heat and why their chances of making it back to the finals have increased.

1. Tyler Herro is on the rise

Without a healthy Goran Dragic in the final, the Heat had no rim shotmaker who could take jumpers off the dribble and create plays for others – a necessary ingredient to win the championship. Kyle Lowry has been added this off-season to address this issue and has been great, pushing a great pace when on the floor.

Perhaps more importantly, Miami’s bubble wonderboy Tyler Herro is now all grown up. Herro, now in his third season, looks like the goalscorer the Heat hoped they were drafting. He has a 20.3 point average and leads Miami with 16.8 shots per game despite coming off the bench. Erik Spoelstra uses Herro in all kinds of actions, such as fencing and handoffs, and regularly calls up inbound plays for him. But above all, Herro is becoming a go-to option for pick-and-rolls and isolations.

Herro’s use has increased, but so has his scoring efficiency: He scores a career-high 1.1 points per shot, according to Second Spectrum. And it’s not just an early season hot streak. Herro sucks 3s, pull-ups and drills fadeaways from the midrange. It’s also easier than ever to get to the basket. His first step is more sudden. He is stronger. And his handle is smoother. He makes faster decisions. Herro becomes the player he sparkled in the bubble.

Miami has so much depth to shoot with Lowry, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, but Herro brings a new element with his perimeter shot from the dribble. And because Miami has so many options, he often faces an opponent’s second or third best defender. If an opponent puts a defensive stopper on Herro, it only creates an advantage elsewhere for Miami. The Heat already had just about everything a title team needs. Herro could be the final piece of the puzzle.

2. Embracing ISOs

One of Miami’s signature moves in its lead-up to the finals was a dribble handoff involving Adebayo and Duncan Robinson:

The Heat had their sixth NBA handoffs two seasons ago, according to Second Spectrum, at 30.1 per game. But last season, the Heat dropped to 12th place and this season they have dropped to 17th in transfers per game. A once common move has diminished as defenses are much better at keeping Robinson in check. Erik Spoelstra has adapted by allowing the Heat to use much more isolations and post-ups:

Miami leans in Isos, Post-ups

Season Isolations by game Post ups per game
Season Isolations by game Post ups per game
2019-20 10.9 5.3
2020-21 12.2 5.7
2021-22 17.2 9.8

The change will allow Miami to take better advantage of its workforce. In addition to Herro’s thriving iso game, the Heat lean more towards Butler. He records 10.2 isolations and post-ups combined this season, up from 6.9 last season and 6.4 the season before.

Leaning into this attack style allows the Heat to go on the hunt. With defenses frequently switching screens in the NBA, the Heat can pick the advantageous matchup to attack with their half-court attack. If Butler has a smaller player with him, he will send them back to the post. If Herro has a big one, he will use his dribble pack to make a 3 or reach the edge.

Lowry hasn’t been asked to score much at first, but as the season progresses he could also be used this way, or even as a screener who could create more matchups in Miami’s favour.

There will, of course, be an adjustment for someone like Robinson, whose pet play has been minimized. Robinson struggled this season, shooting only 34 percent from 3, but the change has increased his chances of a spot.

The complexion of the Heat offense has changed because the staff has done it, but also because they have to. The key to the success of the playoffs is the ability to generate a bucket at the end of the shot clock, which is where isolation or post-ups come into play.

3. Beautiful ball movement

The Heat are more willing to slow things down with an isolation or post-up, but they still have wonderful moments that string together. Here’s one of their finest transient possessions of the season:

It’s basketball at its best. The Heat takes nine steps after Butler crosses halfway, and there is constant movement. Robinson cuts into the rim and instead takes a handoff from Markieff Morris, leading to a series of perimeter passes that cause the Grizzlies to scramble like an egg.

The Heat can play any style. Fast. Slow. Movement. isos. It does not matter. Miami’s assist rate is lower than it has been in four years, but that’s only because it has improved its offensive diversity. If the heat requires it, they can hit the ball across the floor.

4. Crash the offending glass

Miami has prioritized crashing the signs to generate more second chance opportunities than in years past. Last season, the Heat finished in 28th place in offensive rebound percentage. This season they are fourth.

PJ Tucker and Morris replaced less physical players like Trevor Ariza and Kelly Olynyk, and they often lurked around the paint looking for planks.

But they don’t always think about the score first after pinning boards. Most of the time they seem to pass, as Tucker does here after finding an open Robinson in the corner:

Chasing offensive boards is risky; it can hurt your transition defense with fewer players back. But Miami has an experienced crew that can rely on it to make the right reading, whether it’s crashing the boards or running back on the defensive.

5. Bam hits sweaters

Adebayo is a damn good – a two-time All-Defensive team member and one-time All-Star. But Heat fans have sometimes become frustrated with his reluctance to attack offensively. This season he makes a lot more jump shots. Adebayo is trying 5.2 jumpers per game this season, which is an upward trend in his career:

Bam gets his chance

Season sweaters
Season sweaters
2017-18 0.6
2018-19 0.9
2019-20 2.1
2020-21 4
2021-22 5.2

In just nine competitions, Adebayo has a total of more show jumpers (47) this season than in 69 competitions in his rookie season (42). He also managed to use the shot as a short-throw weapon.

Hitting just 40 percent of the midrange jumpers isn’t exactly a super-efficient shot. At least not compared to the expected points per kickout for a knockdown shooter, or a drive to the basket for a lay-up, or even a pop behind the 3-point line. But Adebayo hasn’t tried a single 3 this season.

Taking a stepback jumper and shooting from 3 is the next logical step in Adebayo’s game. He is getting better at shooting from the line, making 82.5 percent of his free throws this season, after making 79.9 percent last season and 69.1 percent the season before. At this rate of development, when will Miami pick him up from the corner or spot-up to shoot a 3? Isn’t it inevitable?

After the Heat beat the Jazz last week, Donovan Mitchell said, “The most important thing about him since I’ve known him since high school is that he was willing to get others involved. He makes. I tell him to shoot 3s, he won’t listen to me.”

Looks like it will only be a matter of time before Adebayo really starts to listen and shoot 3s. Shooting greats are the norm these days, but for Adebayo, it can be the ability that unlocks a higher level of stardom.

In Game 7 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, Spoelstra unleashed Chris Bosh from the corner. Bosh attempted a then-career-high four 3-pointers to defeat the Celtics and advance to the NBA Finals. If the Heat is lucky enough to make a long flight, Adebayo may gain the power to fire from behind the bow. However, we are a long way from that scenario. The Heat is already showing the qualities of a title team, but this is just the start of a long race.

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