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How the Heat Got Their Bubble Groove Back

Miami has done more than add Kyle Lowry to shake things up following a disappointing 2020-21 season. Here are five changes the Heat have made to put themselves back on a path to the NBA Finals.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It feels like a lifetime ago, but we’re only 13 months removed from the Heat losing to the Lakers in the NBA Finals. Following a disappointing 2020-21 season, Miami underwent some changes to its team and its system that have propelled it to a 7-3 start to the season and in a tie for first place in the East. Here are five thoughts about the Heat, and why their odds of making it back to the Finals have increased.

1. Tyler Herro Is Emerging

Without a healthy Goran Dragic in the Finals, the Heat lacked a perimeter shot-maker who could drain jumpers off the dribble and create plays for others—a necessary ingredient to winning the championship. Kyle Lowry was added this offseason to address this issue and has been stellar, pushing a fast pace whenever he’s on the floor.

Perhaps more importantly, Miami’s bubble wonder boy, Tyler Herro, is all grown up now. Herro, now in his third season, looks like the scorer the Heat hoped they were drafting. He’s averaging 20.3 points while leading Miami with 16.8 shot attempts per game despite coming off the bench. Erik Spoelstra uses Herro in an array of actions like screens and handoffs, and frequently calls inbound plays for him. But more than anything, Herro is becoming a go-to option for pick-and-rolls and isolations.

Herro’s usage has increased, but so has his scoring efficiency: He is scoring a career-high 1.1 points per shot, according to Second Spectrum. And it’s not just an early-season hot streak. Herro is draining 3s, hitting pull-ups, and drilling fadeaways from midrange. He’s also getting to the basket with more ease than ever. His first step is more sudden. He’s stronger. And his handle is more fluid. He’s making quicker decisions. Herro is becoming the player he showed glimmers of in the bubble.

Miami has so much shot-creation depth with Lowry, Jimmy Butler, and Bam Adebayo, but Herro brings a new element with his perimeter shot-making off the dribble. And because Miami has so many options, he’s often facing 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 trademark plays during its run to the Finals was a dribble-handoff involving Adebayo and Duncan Robinson:

The Heat were running the sixth-most handoffs in the NBA two seasons ago, with 30.1 per game, according to Second Spectrum. But last season, the Heat dropped to 12th, and this season they have fallen to 17th in handoffs per game. A once-common action has become less so now that defenses do a far better job at containing Robinson. Erik Spoelstra has adjusted by having the Heat utilize far more isolations and post-ups:

Miami Leans Into Isos, Post-ups

Season Isolations Per Game Post-Ups Per Game
Season Isolations Per 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 has allowed Miami to take better advantage of its personnel. In addition to Herro’s blossoming iso game, the Heat are leaning more into Butler. He’s logging 10.2 isolations and post-ups combined this season, up from 6.9 last season and 6.4 the season prior.

Leaning into this style of offense allows the Heat to matchup hunt. With defenses frequently switching screens around the NBA, the Heat can pick the advantageous matchup to attack with their half-court offense. If Butler has a smaller player on him, he’ll back them down to the post. If a big is on Herro, he’ll tap into his dribble package to create a 3 or get to the rim.

Lowry has not been asked to score much early on, but as the season develops he too could be utilized in this manner, or even as a screener who could create more matchups in Miami’s favor.

There’s naturally going to be an adjustment for someone like Robinson, whose pet play has been minimized. Robinson struggled some this season, shooting just 34 percent from 3, but the change has increased his spot-up chances.

The complexion of the Heat offense has changed because the personnel has, but also because it needs to. The key to playoff success is the ability to generate a bucket at the end of the shot clock, and that’s where isolations 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 gorgeous moments stringing together passes. Here’s one of their most beautiful passing possessions of the season:

It’s basketball at its finest. The Heat make nine passes after Butler crosses half court, and there’s constant motion. Robinson fakes a cut to the rim and instead takes a handoff from Markieff Morris, leading to a string of perimeter passes that cause the Grizzlies to scramble like an egg.

The Heat can play any style. Fast. Slow. Motion. Isos. It doesn’t matter. Miami’s assist percentage is lower than it’s been in four years, but that’s only because it’s improved its offensive diversity. When the Heat need to, they can whip the ball around the floor.

4. Crashing the Offensive Glass

Miami has prioritized crashing the boards to generate more second-chance opportunities than in recent years. Last season, the Heat tied for 28th in offensive rebounding percentage. This season, they are fourth.

P.J. Tucker and Morris replaced less physical players like Trevor Ariza and Kelly Olynyk, and they have frequently lurked around the paint looking to snatch boards.

But they don’t always think score-first after securing boards. Usually, they look to pass, as Tucker does here after finding an open Robinson in the corner:

Chasing after offensive boards is risky; it could hurt your transition defense with fewer players back. But Miami has a veteran crew it can trust to make the right read, whether it’s to crash the boards or run back on defense.

5. Bam Is Hitting Jumpers

Adebayo is a dang good—a two-time All-Defensive team member and one-time All-Star. But Heat fans have grown frustrated with him at times because of his reluctance to attack on offense. This season, he is taking far more jump shots. Adebayo is trying 5.2 jumpers per game this season, which follows an upward trend over his career:

Bam Is Getting His Shot

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

In only nine games, Adebayo has more total jumpers this season (47) than he did over 69 games in his rookie season (42). He’s also managed to use the shot as a weapon on the short roll.

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

Shooting from 3 is the next logical step in Adebayo’s game. He’s 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. With this rate of development, when will Miami have him pick-and-pop or spot-up from the corner to shoot a 3? Isn’t it inevitable?

After the Heat defeated the Jazz last week, Donovan Mitchell said, “The biggest thing with him since I’ve known him since high school is he’s been willing to get others involved. He creates. I tell him to shoot 3s, he don’t listen to me.”

It seems like it’ll only be a matter of time until Adebayo does start to listen and begins to shoot 3s. Bigs who can shoot are the norm nowadays, but for Adebayo, it could be the skill 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 beat the Celtics and advance to the NBA Finals. If the Heat are fortunate enough to make a long run, maybe Adebayo will be empowered to shoot from behind the arc. We’re a long way from that scenario though. The Heat are already showing the qualities of a title team, but this is only the beginning of a long race.