clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
NBA: Boston Celtics at Miami Heat Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Filed under:

Heat check: how Miami has become one of the hottest teams in the bubble

A scouting report on Miami’s top players, their tendencies, and where their vulnerabilities lie.

The Miami Heat have zipped through the postseason, winning eight of their nine games and shooting 38.8 percent from three as a team. With two All-Stars anchoring their attack and many catch-and-shoot threats around them, it’s rare to see the Heat go cold. Their 43.8 percent on catch-and-shoot attempts in the postseason is by far the most efficient of the playoffs.

While their offense is a well-balanced, shooting-heavy attack, the Heat scorch teams with their suffocating defense. They have the most defensive versatility in their front court of any team in the East, and they’re tight in their schemes. They mix in a 2-3 zone that morphs from side-to-side and uses that versatility to prevent open looks. They’re a super-strong team defending ball screens, too.

The pervasive phrasing around this team’s surprising ascent has been the dominance of Heat Culture, their workman-like attitudes, and methodical approach to maximizing each person’s role. From Pat Riley to Erik Spoelstra, we’ve seen their leaders turn culture into rings, so while some of the players in this iteration of the Heat don’t have championship experience, they’ve all drank the Kool-Aid that energizes a team for postseason life.

What Are They Running?

The Heat spread the floor and run a ton of handoffs or ball screens. Miami’s spacing is immaculate, and they have legitimate shooters in the corners at all times. This isn’t like the Philadelphia 76ers series where the C’s can key in on their stars and clog the lane. It’s not like the Toronto Raptors series where their length on the wings will find ways to overwhelm drivers, then live with any pick-and-pop treys they cede.

Miami’s offense really starts with Adebayo and Robinson in my eyes. Adebayo’s ability to have plays run through him opens the rim for guys like Butler and Dragic. Robinson’s elite shooting acumen draws defenses further to the perimeter. They’ll set a ton of off-ball screens and exchanges for Robinson when defenders least expect them. Some are planned and some improvised, but the impact is the same: opponents creep out to the 3-point line so far that help rotations are harder to get to.

Think of Miami’s offense as being a tad inverted. They do run a decent amount of ball screens, but the balance in their diet doesn’t come from a motion offense. Instead, it comes from myriad sets that throw the ball to one facilitating location: the low post or the elbows.

When the ball goes into the low post, the Heat run some split action to get cutters and shooters open. They’ll also call designed plays with unique screening actions, such as staggers for Robinson or screen-the-screener actions to get shooters more open. When Adebayo is down low, he’s great at what’s called a grenade action, when the big will dribble from the post up towards the perimeter on the wing, engaging in a handoff with the shooter.

Miami has their wings and guards act as screeners, which makes switching to prevent shots from getting off a difficult task. Leave one of their many shooters and the ball will find them; there’s no real weak shooter, so putting extra attention on elite shooters like Robinson or Herro yields an open look for someone else. Even if they’re not a great shooter, the rim is open for slips, and since the Heat rarely play two non-shooters at a time, a simple dive to the hoop can collapse the defense elsewhere and create kick out avenues.

When the ball is at the elbows, be ready for a million different actions and looks. They run screens and handoffs in many varieties, trying to confuse the defense into anticipating one cut but getting another. Spoelstra will put different guys at the elbows for different sets and always have the threat of ball screens for their handlers in the back of their mind.

At any time, be ready to recognize the types of movements that will come once the ball is where. Be careful, though. There are dozens of patterns they race through:

Spoelstra is the league’s most underrated tactician. If he sees a defensive strategy employed on one of his guys, the set-based approached to playcalling gives him the opportunity to dial up the right play to take advantage of how his guys are being guarded. It makes specialized coverage and taking something away very, very difficult.

Matchups and Other Thoughts

Because the Celtics switch a lot of screens, I’d anticipate the individual matchups for the starters not mattering a great deal to Brad Stevens. Instead, what’s most vital is answering the following three questions:

1. Are you comfortable switching Kemba Walker 1 thru 4, and if not, where do you keep him?

Stevens, the stoic wizard he is, has more answers than I ever will to these questions. But for Kemba, this series really poses a few more options to put him. I’d expect Spoelstra to be very careful about leaving Kendrick Nunn on the floor against Walker, so it really becomes about Kemba guarding Goran Dragic or Miami’s next smallest shooter.

Dragic is the most sensible matchup, letting the two point guards go at each other and preserving matchups elsewhere. But when not switching actions involving Walker, it adds another layer of processing and extra communication for Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, i.e. the switchable wings. When you switch 1 thru 4, it’s easier for those guys because there’s only one person on their team they rotate around and call out that they’re not switching. With two, those split-second delays in recognition could be costly.

I also don’t hate the thought of putting Kemba on Duncan Robinson, face-guarding him in screening actions and trying to use his quickness to undercut any dribbles Robinson foolishly would take. Kemba did a strong job on Matt Thomas in the Toronto series, and Robinson doesn’t have the ability to take him into the post or exploit the matchup individually. Tatum, Brown and Smart then switch between Jimmy Butler, Dragic and whichever third scorer is on the floor, limiting lanes at the point of attack.

In their meeting back on August 4th, Boston still had a healthy Gordon Hayward and were more comfortable going small into a switch 1 thru 5 lineup, even trying that strategy for moments when Daniel Theis was in. There wasn’t a very strong impact. The Heat were ready for slips and dives to the rim, and run so much quick-hitting handoff, fake handoff and screening actions that miscommunications are lethal.

Miami’s offense is really good at targeting the switching masquerade:

Will we see Stevens go towards a switch-heavy scheme? He’ll likely throw different coverages at Miami throughout the game to keep them guessing, and change on the fly multiple times. If their dissection of the switching demonstrated back in that earlier bubble meeting is any indication, Stevens must be willing to throw the kitchen sink at them to get the victory.

To construct the timing of when to do each strategy, answering the next two questions is crucial.

2. If there’s one person you want to encourage to try and beat you, who is it?

In a playoff series where you can key in on certain players, it is one more about what you encourage the other team to take, and usually it has to do with daring a third or fourth option to shoulder an increased load. In the Raptors series, that was continually allowing Serge Ibaka to take pick-and-pop threes. While he made many, and Toronto almost won the series, Stevens collapsed the lane to take away others and banked on Ibaka not making enough to win them the series. He was right.

In this series, Miami is more well-rounded. Their options 1 thru 4 are all pretty reliable, and guys outside that are too smart with knowing their role that they won’t force shots. I’d expect Stevens to rely more on encouraging the young guys (Herro and Nunn) to be scorers when they’re in, and switching up defenses a lot against the top unit.

3. What do you do with your minutes at the backup 5?

This will be a cat-and-mouse game between the two coaches. Which one sets the tone and forces the other to adapt, and which one waits to see what their opponent does before unrolling the master plan?

This series screams Grant Williams at the 5 in my book. Miami naturally plays small. Xwitchability is king against them and with a backup 5 in Olynyk who shoots, Robert Williams may have some difficulties again. Stevens could easily opt to rely on his threat of alley-oop finishing to offset those losses, but it remains to be seen. We may get a lot of what we did in the Raptors series: Robert earlier in games, Grant with the closing role late.


Like the Raptors series, this will come down to shooting splits and Boston’s ability to make tough shots. While Butler is the emotional and on-court leader for the Heat, he’s not what frightens me most. Their shooting across the board and the wonky usage of Adebayo inside presents unique challenges vastly different than the Raptors did.

This Heat team is on a tear right now. Let’s cool them off.

Celtics in 6.

Boston Celtics Games

The Celtics were tested with the In-Season Tournament, and now it’s time to learn from it

Shams report: Celtics expected to be active, looking for bench depth

Boston Celtics Discussion Topics

Topic Tuesday: Celtics 15-5 through 20 games

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Celtics Blog Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Boston Celtics news from Celtics Blog