For Part I of the series on the Milwaukee Bucks, click here.
More often than not, how well a playoff team performs after the All-Star Break is a good indicator of how they’re going to fare in the postseason. In the East, nobody has reinvented themselves as dramatically as the Miami Heat.
Today we’ll be focusing on the recent play of Miami, who, like the Milwaukee Bucks, has looked like a different team since the All-Star Break. However unlike Milwaukee, Miami has been playing the best basketball of their season thanks to finding their rhythm on the offensive end.
We’ll dive into their changed identity, and what they’ve done to ameliorate some early season woes in order to turn one of the league’s worst offenses into a viable scoring machine.
What Does Miami Do?
First, we need to look at who the pre-ASB Heat were in order to provide context to this question. They were a team that could get the job done on defense (8th in defensive rating), but could not score the ball to save their lives (25th in offensive rating).
The result was mediocrity. Despite having a record of 30-28, the Heat held a -1.3 net rating through 58 games; a counter-intuitive assessment, but one that lends credence to the level of coaching on which Erik Spoelstra exists.
They were bad at a few things in particular: they were bottom five in turnover percentage (15.3 percent), and they played at a snail’s pace, which meant those turnovers came at a higher cost due to the fewer possessions.
Miami had a singular problem: they didn’t run on offense, and were totally passive. Whether it was the fast-break, crashing the offensive glass, or taking advantage of turnovers, Miami lacked the killer instinct needed to get easy points when your shot isn’t falling, or when it simply isn’t enough.
Here is where Miami ranked in a few categories that I believe qualify as “easy buckets” before the All-Star Break:
Fast-Break Points: 7.6 (28th of 30)
Second-Chance Points: 10.6 (26th)
Points Off Turnovers; 15.0 (24th)
The team was failing to generate easy looks and it was destroying their offense. They relied solely upon their half-court sets with shifty pin-down screens to get shooters open.
But, even on their best nights, something was still off.
Their suffocating style on the defensive end came at a cost: they were never in position to jump on opponents offensively when the opportunity presented itself. All of this meant that opposing defenses could dig in that much more, and as a team who was allergic to scoring easy buckets, this was oftentimes lethal for the Heat. It became a vicious cycle.
Change Starts From Within (the Paint)
Since the team resumed play on February 23rd, the Heat have dramatically changed in a number of ways, starting on the offensive end.
Miami players are spending more time in the paint on offense and, even without their most dominant positional player Hassan Whiteside (who missed the last four games), the Heat are controlling the post.
Before the break, Miami was averaging 42.4 points in the paint. They’ve increased that number to 52.3 since. That would rank them second in the league on the season, for context, although the 9.9 point increase alone is striking.
They’re also crashing the glass more to help generate additional shots. This has increased both their offensive rebounding numbers (8.8 to 11.6) and attempted field goals per game (83.1 to 92.7) by significant margins.
Suddenly, the Heat are putting themselves in a position to win a lot of games, which for them, is coming at the perfect time.
Rival Bench Mob
Guess who else has a potent Bench Mob? That’s right — the Miami Heat. Much of their sustained success in recent weeks has come on the back of an extended rotation.
In 13 games since the break, Miami has had 11 players play in at least eight games while averaging 18 minutes per night. And not only are they a deep team, they have an absolutely insane nine players averaging double-figure points in that span, with not a single player averaging more than 15 field-goal attempts per game.
The entire Heat roster is basically playing the role of a bench unit. With just two players (Goran Dragic and Josh Richardson) averaging over 30 minutes a night, the roster is staying fresh while also winning games.
This egalitarian approach has not only helped sustain their offensive output by not relying on a single shot maker, it’s helped improve ball movement, which in turn, generates the easy looks we know Miami so desperately needed.
Overall, Miami’s post-ASB offensive numbers in these 13 games are an astounding improvement: they’re scoring 14.3 more points per game (114.8) than they were before the ASB (100.5), shooting 47 percent from the field and 37 percent from three, while dishing out almost 26 assists per game. Their offense is not only functioning, it has looked like one of the best in the league.
Now, as Raptor fans, we are all familiar with the now infamous “regression to the mean” rule (thanks Mr. Morey). How much will this blistering output fall back by mid-April?
In my opinion, because the Heat are relying so little on one individual player — it’s really tough to say when/if it will regress. It will at some point, of course, but the sheer number of guys they rely on to score makes them a dangerous team to contain if you have a simple, singular game plan.
Of course, if we consider Justise Winslow a barometer for the Heat’s increased offensive output, it’ll be very tough for him to continue shooting 48 percent from three through the playoffs. (Yeah, that’s how hot they’ve been recently.) A regression to the mean seems very likely at this point, with players like Winslow overachieving.
But, again, Miami has nine players averaging double-digits, and seven of them score at least 12 points per game. This is also a reason why it was so hard for me to point to a specific player or match-up that Toronto needs to watch for in a playoff series, and why I consider the entire roster to be a threat (although the Bam Adebayo—Goran Dragic pairing is already giving me agita) should they continue to play this well.
To contain the Heat on offense — one that survives on off-ball movement and plenty of screen actions — you need a sound defensive scheme that relies on length, switching and communication. Luckily, these are a few of Toronto’s strengths on defense this season.
MIA: Missing in Action
The biggest flaw of the Miami Heat is its lack of size. This is why they struggled to execute in the post early on. Without making a concerted effort down low, they got beat by bigger teams. Now that Spoelstra has made the effort to get into the paint and crash the glass, Miami’s defense is MIA.
As would happen to every other team in the NBA, the Miami Heat reinforced one area of the floor and got weaker at another. This, however, is brutal.
Since the break, the Heat defense is allowing opposing teams to shoot a ridiculous 41.1 percent from three (knocking down 11.0 per game). It’s a jarring number not only because of its sheer ineptitude, but also because they ranked tenth in opponent three point percentage (35.5 percent) before the break.
This is where Toronto can find success in a seven-game series. As one of the top volume-shooting teams in the league, the Raptors need to barrage the Heat defense from the perimeter in order to thin out the paint. Pulling them out will then open up easier looks for the team’s guards to drive to the bucket, where they play their best brand of ball alongside the Raptors’ bigs.
Miami Heat opponents are scoring almost 9.0 more points per game (101.4 to 110.2) as a result of the ailing defense, and Heat games these days look more like Warriors-esque shootouts. This obviously favours the Raptors, but still, the team shouldn’t be so eager to play with this type of fire.
It’s tough to say why there’s such a sudden change — Miami’s pace hasn’t risen as dramatically as other teams’ since the break — so it could all just simply be a case of a team catching fire at the right time.
When you combine that with coach Spoelstra being one of the best in the league, you suddenly have an NBA team winning 60 percent of its games. For Toronto’s sake, let’s hope this Heat cools down before the playoffs.
Stats from NBA.com/stats and basketball-reference.com