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Small-but-Mighty Ball: How the Heat Play Big Despite Sizing Down

Like most teams in the modern NBA, Miami prioritizes skill over size. The difference is the Heat still pack the punch of a much bigger squad.

Jonthan Bartlett

There’s no real secret to the way the Heat operate. This is a team that dubbed its locker room “the Kennel” because, well, they’re dogs. They play hard-nosed basketball and will go out of their way to let you know they play hard-nosed basketball. Heat Culture™ has rounded the bend from organizational philosophy to convenient talking point to occasional self-parody, but the overall impression is clear. You know exactly what to expect when you take the floor against the Miami Heat.

But then you have to survive it. And in the process of doing battle with the Heat, one can so easily lose sight of their dimensions—of the fact that the most bruising team in the NBA actually plays small.

A note in the scouting report becomes a body-check box-out from Bam Adebayo, who gives up size to most of the centers he matches up against. A clip from the morning’s film session turns into a bone-crunching screen delivered by P.J. Tucker, a power forward who sees eye to eye with most of the league’s shooting guards. Between the lines, it never really feels like the Heat are giving up size across their lineup, though they usually are. “They are small, man,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan had to remind his team in a huddle during Game 5 of their first-round series. “The only big guy out there is Bam, all right? Pound it inside and pound the boards!” The message never really took; McMillan’s plea came in what turned out to be the last game of Atlanta’s season.

Philadelphia didn’t fare much better. From the very first game of his team’s second-round series against the Heat, Sixers coach Doc Rivers lamented the glaring difference in physicality between the two clubs, and how it allowed Miami to set the terms for the entire matchup. “It felt like, for whatever reason, it caught us by surprise almost,” Rivers said, incredulously. “Like we didn’t know it was coming. I don’t know why we wouldn’t know, but that’s how it felt.”

Maybe there are some things in basketball that you can’t really know until they’re swarming you, grabbing at you, forcing you to compete for every step. The best Heat lineups have all the stifling versatility of small ball and the physical command of bully ball. It’s an identity of contradiction. Miami will switch a pick-and-roll and still push opponents around. Gabe Vincent will wrestle giants for post position. Jimmy Butler will back anyone and everyone into the stanchion. This team starts relatively small, sometimes goes even smaller, and wins, primarily, on brawn.

It can be shocking to behold. In the opening game of the Eastern Conference finals, Boston played free and easy until the precise moment that Miami decided otherwise. The third quarter was an overwhelming show of force—a 39-14 swing that upended everything the Celtics thought they could rely on. For minutes at a time, Boston struggled just to get the ball inside the arc.

“We won three quarters,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka told reporters afterward. “Won the transition battle. Won the second-chance points battle. Won the points in the paint. And really had one poor quarter that hurt us, and it was strictly from a physicality standpoint. It wasn’t anything different that they did. They just came out and imposed their will.”

The dynastic exploits of Steph Curry and the Warriors have taught us to expect that an explosive run from a smaller lineup should look and feel a certain way—punctuated, of course, by torrid shooting. Yet small ball isn’t really a style of play in itself. It’s a medium. Golden State can go small to exaggerate its spacing and play to the deepest range of its all-world shooters. Miami, however, plays small to kick its defense into overdrive, to be able to shift through schemes as necessary and grind opponents down to dust.

This era of the Heat began downsizing in 2017, immediately after Hassan Whiteside’s first season as a full-time starter. The Whiteside era saw the modern Heat at their most rigid—locked into one way of playing by their painfully traditional, rim-protecting center, at least until Adebayo emerged to blow the playbook wide open. Bam might not stand as tall as some of his positional peers, but Miami has built its approach on the gambit that it’s easier for a smaller, more flexible team to overcome a size disadvantage than for a bigger, more physically daunting team to overcome its narrower strategic options.

Boston’s previous opponent offered up some corroborating evidence. Without Khris Middleton in uniform, the Bucks didn’t have enough reliable wings or guards to play any way but big—with Brook Lopez warding the Celtics out of the paint, but leaving an assortment of shooters wide open beyond the arc in the process. Milwaukee stuck to the only real option it had as Grant Williams fired up 3 after 3 in Game 7, with all the pressure of a summer workout in an empty gym. The Heat have gone out of their way to ensure that they won’t be backed into that kind of corner. There is freedom in relying less on size, and more on force.

In Pat Riley’s days coaching the Knicks in the 1990s—teams that fouled so violently as to inspire the NBA’s flagrant point system—he encouraged his players to meet force with force, if mostly as a justification to knock stars like Michael Jordan on their ass. The NBA is a very different league in 2022, but this Heat team, like most that Riley has assembled during his 27 years as Miami’s team president, manages to fulfill that same doctrine on its own proportional terms.

Battling against Miami in a playoff series comes with a different level of contact. Adebayo and Grant Williams collided with full force while lunging for a loose ball during Tuesday’s Game 1. Robert Williams III had his legs taken out from under him when Adebayo, seemingly unaware that Williams had jumped for a lob, began boxing out the Celtics center while he was still in the air. (Heat legend Alonzo Mourning, who is now the team’s vice president of player programs, looked disgusted when Adebayo was assessed a Flagrant 1.) Getting into the paint against Miami requires hand-to-hand combat. No moment is too small to hit, or bump, or hold someone. No play is too insignificant to be met with force.

Miami’s baseline physicality is higher than almost any other team in the league, which is part of the reason the Heat seem so perfectly suited to playoff basketball. What’s allowed in the trenches can change from night to night, or even official to official. So the Heat count on Tucker, their human roadblock, to set his own tone. To budge the standard of expected physicality, one hip check at a time.

Tucker is a veteran of small ball—a 6-foot-5 forward who allowed Houston to stretch the floor around James Harden, and Milwaukee around Giannis Antetokounmpo. In both spots, he rounded out high-level defenses by taking on the most dangerous scorers on the floor. He also gave a backbone to softer, guard-heavy lineups that needed his edge. The appeal for the Heat was obvious. Miami tried last season to flank Butler and Adebayo with bigger shooters who couldn’t defend or longer defenders who couldn’t really shoot. Tucker split the difference—just in a much more stout package—and changed what it meant for the Heat to play small.

In these playoffs, Tucker has taken on Trae Young, then Harden, and now Jayson Tatum, shadowing those stars everywhere they went, and then crashing into them in the moments when such things are generally more accepted. Tucker, now 37, wouldn’t be able to do his job without a canny read on how stars move or a sophisticated understanding of how to dole out body blows over the course of a game. He lives his basketball life through wars of attrition.

“It’s what I do,” Tucker said earlier in the playoffs. “Just try to change the game. Affect the game without scoring and doing all the stuff that’s on here.” He gestures flippantly to the box score. “Figuring out a way to win the game. That’s it.”

Tucker doesn’t play dirty—just damn hard, all the time, making up for the size Miami gives up by design. During the first half of Game 1, Tucker limped off the court and down the tunnel after turning an ankle. Then he changed his shoes, came back out for the second half, and went right back to bodying up Tatum. It would be a wonder that Tucker is able to make plays like this on a tender ankle, if he hadn’t been fighting for every possession his entire career:

“There’s a genie back there,” Tucker said of his apparent recovery. “Took one of my wishes.”

Tatum, meanwhile, didn’t make a shot in the third quarter while turning the ball over six times. After the game, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra compared Tucker to a linebacker, citing the way he coordinates the defense, but might have been prompted, on some level, by physical likeness alone. You can afford to play smaller lineups when your undersized power forward hounds point guards, checks superstar wings, and moonlights at center. It allows the Heat to hit first and still hit harder, demanding an opponent’s full attention before they can even think about getting into their offense. “If it was a boxing match, we were the counterpunchers,” Rivers said during the second round. “And we didn’t counter a lot.”

Players like Tucker, Butler, and Adebayo can bog down the tactical give-and-take of a playoff series by physically preventing opponents from moving the ball where it needs to go. “They know how to be disruptive,” Spoelstra said. “They’re smart. So they’re able to strike that balance between incredible competitiveness and intensity, but also having a stable mind.” When the Heat are at their best, they’re everywhere. Triple-teaming the ball. Hovering in all the passing lanes. Scrambling to take away the airspace of all the shooters at once, as only a smaller team can. At times, it can feel as if their entire roster is on the floor. And once a shot goes up, they flock to the ball, fighting for possession with a ferocity beyond other small-ball outfits. Miami was one of the best defensive rebounding teams all season long, with every win clawed out of the hands of 7-footers. Listed height ain’t nothing but a number.

Joel Embiid was slowed by injury in the second round, but still enjoyed one immutable advantage against Miami: He could see clear over the top of Adebayo, and stood head and shoulders above Tucker. Yet when it came time for Embiid to leverage that size, the Heat bigs fronted him with such frenzied commitment that the Sixers would sometimes throw the ball out of bounds, or simply give up on feeding Embiid at all:

“The easiest thing to not let a dude score,” Adebayo said, “is to not let him catch it.” That’s even more difficult with Tatum, who could bring the ball up the floor whenever the Celtics see fit. Tucker, however, will be there to pick him up full court, hanging in Tatum’s space the entire way. If Boston’s emergent superstar gives the ball up, the Heat will deny him, forcing him to flee high above the arc to start every move from scratch. “[When] you play against Miami, it’s a bunch of athletic guys that are physical, tough,” Embiid said after experiencing it firsthand. “That just changes the way you play offensively.”

Miami’s hard-nosed switching can disrupt an opponent down to their interlocking parts. If there’s choreography involved, expect delays; nothing works quite as intended once the Heat start bumping drivers out of their lanes and holding up shooters in motion. This defense relishes the path of most resistance. Just because Miami is agile enough to switch doesn’t mean they’ll give one up freely, and just because an opponent like Boston forces a switch doesn’t mean they’ll get much of a chance to attack it.

The Heat, meanwhile, have consistently found points of their own through brute force. Spacing is important. Ball movement is vital. Yet ultimately, Miami’s postseason offense has relied heavily on the fact that Butler—who topped 40 points yet again in Game 1—can drive straight through one of the best defensive centers in the NBA:

“I like physicality,” Butler said Tuesday. “I wanna run into people and see who falls down first. Who’s gonna quit first. I think that’s a style of basketball I like to play—and so do they. I was 0-for-2 from 3 tonight. I wanna go 0-for-0 next game, because I just wanna keep banging into people.”

Earlier this season, Heat bulwark Udonis Haslem told GQ that he and Butler play one-on-one every game day. You can see that influence in the way Miami’s go-to scorer will wipe out defenders in the post with a perfectly timed shove. Butler doesn’t have a blinding first step or the kind of range that makes a defender overreact to his every move. Everything comes from a want to create contact, and the guile to take advantage. It must be maddening to contend with the way Butler blends dishing out hits with flailing off contact. He’ll spend an entire game clearing opponents out with his shoulder only to bait a defender with a shot fake, take the dive, and hit them with the finger guns after the whistle blows:

Following Game 1, Udoka noted that his team had responded to the Heat’s more aggressive play in the third quarter by driving into crowds of defenders and trying, foolishly, to draw fouls. “We lost our composure,” he said. Really, the Celtics lost their collective minds. Strange things can happen when a team feels an opponent wresting away control of a game—especially when that opponent is smaller across the board. Some players become so consumed by proving something in their own matchup that they lose sight of the game plan. Others get rattled and stop cutting, stop driving. They stop actively solving problems, and look to the officials instead. They forget, in those moments, what they’re really up against.