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Kyle Lowry Has Turned on the Burners for the Heat

Revitalized by the former Toronto man’s high-speed playmaking and defensive prowess, Miami looks poised to contend

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It didn’t take long for the Miami Heat to start looking like a Kyle Lowry team. That’s probably because Kyle Lowry loves to make sure things don’t take long.

The Heat enter Friday’s matchup with the Hornets at 3-1 following an emphatic road win in Brooklyn. (Their lone loss came in overtime, and with Lowry in street clothes.) Miami ran rampant over the wobbling Nets, upping the tempo against a sluggish opponent while hunting high-percentage attempts early in the shot clock. All those leak-outs and long balls were clearly part of Erik Spoelstra’s game plan; Miami correctly sensed an opportunity against one of the NBA’s most permissive and least effective transition defenses. But they also came as a natural byproduct of the Heat plugging Lowry—long one of the league’s premier early-offense fire-starters—into their attack.

Following a disappointing encore to their Finals run in the bubble that saw them finish sixth in the East and get absolutely smoked by the Bucks in Round 1, the Heat entered the offseason in need of some upgrades if they intended to return to the ranks of title contenders. It was quite a shopping list: stronger point-of-attack defense, more playmaking savvy in the backcourt, and a better catch-and-shoot option off the ball when the offense runs through All-Stars Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Miami, which failed to crack one point per possession against Milwaukee after finishing the 2020-21 season ranked 19th in offensive efficiency, needed an infusion of experience, scoring talent, and shot-creation craft.

Lowry—Butler’s longtime friend, godfather of his daughter, and former Team USA backcourt partnerchecked every box. Acquired from Toronto in a three-year, $85 million sign-and-trade deal, Lowry’s gotten off to a slow start generating his own offense, but has already provided a vital injection of velocity and opportunism for the Heat. Last season, 15.1 percent of Miami’s shot attempts came in the first six seconds of the shot clock. That’s up to 18.1 percent through four games, and much of the increase stems from Lowry, a squat 35-year-old who might profile as a plodder, but whose ever-revving engine and constant pursuit of scoring chances has helped the Heat hit hyperdrive:

The Heat, Turned Up

Season Pace (Possessions Per 48 Minutes) Fast Break Points Per 48 Minutes Transition Frequency Points Per Transition Play
Season Pace (Possessions Per 48 Minutes) Fast Break Points Per 48 Minutes Transition Frequency Points Per Transition Play
2020-21 97.1 11.8 14.9% 1.267
2021-22, With Lowry on Court 106.6 21.9 18.1% 1.412
Transition stats via Cleaning the Glass. Fast break and pace stats via NBA.com.

“[We’re] realizing how fast you have to play with Kyle as your point guard. I think we’ve got to get used to that,” Butler recently told reporters. “He’s always looking to pitch the ball ahead. … You’ve gotta be in some really great shape to be out there in what we call the ‘Kyle Chaos.’”

That chaos has helped buoy the Heat amid offensive struggles elsewhere. Despite strong starts from Butler (23.3 points per game on 47.9 percent shooting), Adebayo (19.3 points per game on 50 percent shooting) and breakout candidate Tyler Herro (21 points and four assists per game off the bench), Miami’s half-court offense is still very much under construction, averaging a dismal 82.6 points per 100 plays in the half court, according to Cleaning the Glass—second worst in the league, ahead of only the winless Pistons.

Some dysfunction was to be expected, given the need to integrate two new starters (Lowry and P.J. Tucker) and a key new frontcourt reserve (Markieff Morris). It’s also reasonable to expect the attack to trend upward once high-volume marksmen Lowry (just 8-for-27 from the field) and Duncan Robinson (31.3 percent from 3-point land, nearly 11 points below his career average) get their shooting strokes online. When shooting slumps do come, though, it’s awfully nice to have another way to punish the opposition; Lowry’s penchant for pace-pushing after a rebound—Miami ranks seventh in points per possession off a miss, according to PBP Stats, after finishing 18th last season—provides one.

Lowry’s arrival brings a form of punishment on the other end, too. Miami leads the league in defensive efficiency, paced by a new-look starting five that has thus far put offenses in the friggin’ Million Dollar Dream.

The fivesome of Adebayo, Tucker, Robinson, Butler, and Lowry has given up just 80 points in 44 minutes, holding opponents to 35.8 percent shooting. Adding the undersized but tenacious Lowry and Tucker—neither of whom has made an All-Defensive Team in their lengthy careers, which feels like a sin—to five-time All-Defense selection Butler and fourth-place Defensive Player of the Year finisher Adebayo gives the Heat the freedom to switch just about any assignment on a given possession and still feel confident in their ability to cut off drives, stonewall post-ups, contest jumpers, and cause turnovers.

“I can be on [Kevin Durant], then Bam will switch, and I’m like, ‘Cool,’” Tucker told reporters after the win over the Nets. “Then Jimmy will switch, and I’m like, ‘Cool.’ Then Kyle will switch, and I’m like, ‘Cool.’”

It’s a unit that concedes nothing easy, that seizes on weak ball handlers and lollipop passes, and looks for opportunities to bring the fight to the offense, rather than sitting back on its heels. (Even the weak link, Robinson, is 6-foot-7 and 215 pounds with a willingness to compete when opposing scorers try to hunt him on switches.) That attacking approach can give a team an identity, instilling a conviction to win even when its offense remains a work in progress.

“Everything is not going to be all good every single night,” Butler recently said. “But when you do got dogs, they’re always going to find a way to win, and we got a couple of them that just love to go out there and play bully ball.”

And on those nights when it’s not all good—like, say, when a larger share of the 42 3-point attempts per game Miami is allowing start to go through the net—it’ll be on those dogs to get up off the mat and figure out another solution. That’s why they got Lowry: to face those situations, regroup, and find another way to win. It doesn’t always look pretty. But it usually doesn’t take very long.