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Are the Heat the Sleeping Giants of the East?

The Bucks are the reigning champs and the Nets and 76ers have revamped superteams, but there’s reason to believe Miami is the most dangerous team in the conference. Just look at what they’ve done so far.

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In an interview promoting, among other things, cryptocurrency and coffee, Jimmy Butler recently described the Heat’s standing atop the Eastern Conference at the break as a triumph of another pair of valuable c’s: consistency and comfort.

“If you’re doing the same thing every day, you’re definitely going to be comfortable—you’re going to know where you stand whenever adversity hits, or when something gets really, really difficult,” Butler told Dime’s Katie Heindl. “And then it’s just like, yo, luck comes around just at the perfect place, the perfect time, and it just takes you over that edge.”

But while that sort of adherence to routine can serve as the foundation of a stable and successful career, Butler’s Heat on the whole haven’t really been able to “do the same thing every day” very often this season. Injuries, illnesses, and other absences have dramatically reshuffled Erik Spoelstra’s deck over the past few months; no member of the Heat has played in all 59 of their games, and only the Magic and Clippers saw their players miss more total games, according to the injury analytics site Man Games Lost.

Tailbone and ankle issues cost Butler nearly a third of the pre-break slate. Thumb surgery shelved Bam Adebayo for six weeks; personal issues kept Kyle Lowry away from the team for two. All told, Miami’s three best players have played just 415 minutes together over 21 games; they’ve shared the floor with Tyler Herro, averaging 20 points, five rebounds, and four assists per game off the bench in a breakout Sixth Man of the Year–worthy campaign, for just 65 minutes over 14 contests.

Miami has more than persevered, though. It entered the break tied with the Bulls for first place in the East, with the NBA’s no. 7 offense and no. 5 defense, according to Cleaning the Glass. Despite hardly having its full complement of talent—or, weirdly, maybe because of it—the Heat head into the home stretch in prime position to finish atop the conference.

Few coaches seem more inspired by the maxim that necessity is the mother of invention than Spoelstra, arguably the NBA’s most malleable bench boss. He’s constantly mixing and matching, exploring and experimenting in search of the stylistic shift, schematic tweak, or rotation shift that will put the collection of players he has in the best position to succeed. I’m not sure he’s ever done it better than this season: The Heat have gone 17-8 without Adebayo, 12-7 without Butler, 9-4 without Herro (who has missed time due to COVID and knee issues), and 8-5 without Lowry.

Miami weathered the absences of its All-Stars by once again mining gold from a player development program that routinely produces dependable rotation players. Year after year, the Heat transform undrafted free agents and fringe two-way prospects into hand-in-glove fits for a roster where Spoelstra demands you defend like your hair’s on fire, on and off the ball, and make the right play to fit into its movement-heavy offense.

Last season, Max Strus squeaked out a training camp contract; now, he’s launching and splashing 3s as frequently as the likes of Fred VanVleet, Desmond Bane, Patty Mills, and Anfernee Simons. (He can also take it to the rack; just ask John Wall.) Gabe Vincent went from launching 10 3s a game in the G League to a credible understudy to Lowry, a hard-nosed 3-and-D table-setter who can still crank it up when called upon. Omer Yurtseven went from stacking DNP-CDs and garbage-time cameos into a rotation role when Adebayo went down; he responded by averaging a double-double for six weeks. Caleb Martin went from the outskirts of the rotation on a sub-.500 Hornets team to spending 20-plus minutes a night hounding some of the league’s toughest covers across four positions, all while shooting 70 percent at the rim and 38 percent from 3.

It’s not just that Strus, Vincent, Yurtseven, Martin, and Co. were good enough to patch the holes in Miami’s rotation; it’s that Spoelstra had a deft enough hand to shift the fabric of what the Heat did to ensure they covered the gaps.

Through the first couple of months of the season, Miami ranked 19th in 3-point attempts per game, a somewhat natural outgrowth of featuring two stars (Butler and Adebayo) who don’t frequently take or make long balls. With both in and out of the lineup, though, replaced more often by stretch big Dewayne Dedmon and wing players who could cast away, Spoelstra tailored the offense to the talent on hand; Miami launched 38.2 3-point attempts per game during Adebayo’s six-week absence, seventh most in the league in that span, and made more long balls than anybody but the Jazz.

Ever since Adebayo’s breakout two seasons ago, Miami has run a ton of offense through him inside. The Heat have led the league in possessions per game finished via off-ball cuts and dribble handoffs in each of the last two seasons; Adebayo has ranked third in elbow touches in both seasons, too. When he went down, it seemed like that part of the Heat’s playbook would suffer the same fate. Instead, Miami still ranks near the top of the league in cut and handoff frequency, thanks partly to Spoelstra rearranging the pieces on the chessboard by taking P.J. Tucker out of his customary spot in the short corners and stationing him on the block and the elbow. As it turns out, the experience and ability to read the floor that helps make Tucker such a fantastic defender can also translate to finding teammates as they screen for one another, cut off one another, and sprint around the court:

The 36-year-old is averaging a career-high 2.6 assists per 36 minutes—another example of Spoelstra’s ability to turn a roster crisis into an opportunity to develop new options. He’s got plenty on the other end of the court, too. Miami boasts maybe the NBA’s most versatile defense, a unit capable of preventing good looks no matter the setting, circumstance, or personnel on the floor—and one that has only grown more resourceful as a result of all the roster shuffling.

Miami is built to be the NBA’s best switching defense, with Adebayo at or near the top of the list of the league’s very best 1-through-5 defenders, and Butler, Tucker, and Lowry all brilliant across multiple positions. The starting defense, with those four alongside Duncan Robinson, has been absolutely as advertised, suffocating opponents to the tune of a microscopic 91.9 points per 100 possessions—second best in the league among lineups to log at least 200 possessions.

Losing Adebayo for a stretch, though, meant playing Dedmon and Yurtseven, neither of whom is nearly as nimble. That also meant downshifting to more traditional drop coverage, sending those centers back to the paint to protect the rim. Well, that worked too: Miami has defended at a top-five level in Dedmon’s minutes and just below league average with Yurtseven on the floor. So now Spoelstra knows he can switch and drop … but why stop there?

The Heat can mix in more aggressive coverages, turning loose their tenacious point-of-attack defenders—Butler, Vincent, Martin, and even the 35-year-old Lowry—and supporting them by dispatching the bigs to the level of the screen to crank up the harassment. They can sink into a zone, aiming to short-circuit the offense by keeping the ball out of the paint. They can occasionally spring opportunistic double-teams and traps on ball handlers. And, gnarliest of all, they can toggle back and forth among these options from possession to possession, thanks to the individual skills and the collective IQ of the defenders on hand—and to the fact that so many different players have now gotten so many reps in so many different schemes.

That silver lining also shines bright on offense. Spoelstra can go to the tried-and-true dribble handoff game, once primarily a Bam-and-Duncan production, now available in a wider variety of flavors. He can let Bam, P.J., and Jimmy set up shop on the block, have their shooters run Warriors-style split actions on the weak side, and feast off backdoor cuts or curls into open jumpers.

He can dial up pick-and-rolls, whether from the top of the floor with shooters in the corners to stretch the defense, or from the side of the floor with the strong-side corner emptied out, making help rotations treacherous. He can run them with a center who can pop (Dedmon is 16-for-31 from deep this season), who can dive (Yurtseven is shooting 60 percent as a roll man), or who can do either and make a play on the short roll (Adebayo, whose assist numbers are down this season, but who’s still one of the best passing big men in the game).

He can throw curveballs off that pick-and-roll fastball, too. Miami’s got at least a half-dozen players who can work either end of the pick-and-roll, giving Spoelstra a ton of options to choose from if he wants to hunt mismatches in isolation or in the post—a good way to generate quality scoring chances even amid less-than-ideal spacing with multiple shaky shooters on the floor.

The Heat don’t run tons of those actions—they’re 19th in the NBA in isolations per game, and 13th in post-ups per game, according to Synergy—but they’re turning to them more frequently than they have in the last few seasons, because they’ve now got more players capable of creating a quality look out of them. They could have even more by season’s end, too.

Victor Oladipo—who joined the Heat at the 2021 trade deadline, but made only four appearances before undergoing season-ending surgery on his right quadriceps tendon—recently started practicing with the Heat’s G League affiliate in South Dakota. And while Markieff Morris still hasn’t been cleared to return from the neck injury he suffered at the hands of Nikola Jokic back in November, both he and Oladipo traveled with the team to New York for Friday’s meeting with the Knicks.

If healthy, Oladipo profiles as a perfect fit for a second unit that could really use another shot creator and downhill driver to pair with Herro, and Morris would provide another pick-and-pop big with the size and touch to back down and shoot over smaller defenders on the block. Both could have a lot of value for the Heat, who rank a middling 13th in points per half-court possession.

There might be another answer to Miami’s half-court struggles, though—one that revealed itself after an embarrassing 30-point loss to Boston last month.

In a game the Heat played without Butler or Lowry, Adebayo scored just 12 points on 11 shots—eight fewer attempts than Strus, seven fewer than Herro, the same number as Martin, and just one more than Vincent. That’s not the sort of deference you want to see from an All-Star playmaker; it frustrated a lot of Heat fans. Evidently, it frustrated Bam, too.

“I need to be aggressive,” he told Miami’s players and coaches after the loss, according to Heat reporter Wes Goldberg. “Not just for me, but for the whole team.”

Well, this is what “aggressive” looks like:

In the eight games following the Boston loss, Adebayo averaged 21.9 points on 15.8 field goal attempts, posting a 28 percent usage rate and shooting 55.6 percent from the field—well above his career high-water marks in terms of looking for his own offense. He also added 11.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.8 steals, and 1.0 blocks in 33.4 minutes per game in that stretch—the kind of all-around production that only some of the best big men ever have put up over the course of a full season.

“I can take 15 shots against anybody,” Adebayo recently told reporters. “You can get that off at any point. … When you watch film and you see the openings that you have, it’s a reminder in your mind that, when you get to certain plays or you get to that certain moment again, it’s just like, ‘All right, this is the time that I get to be aggressive.’”

I suspect Spoelstra would argue that “the time [Bam gets] to be aggressive” should be “all the time, whenever he wants, and he can start yesterday, please and thank you.” But today works, too—especially if Adebayo can keep that same energy en route to racking up more wins through the rest of the regular season. Because there’s another silver lining for Miami: The Heat could have a friendlier road home than some of their East rivals with whom they’re jostling for playoff positioning.

Miami has “the league’s second-most home-heavy remaining schedule,” according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, with 15 of its final 23 games coming in South Florida. The Bucks, Bulls, Celtics, and 76ers all have a tougher remaining strength of schedule (the Nets are tied with the Heat), according to Tankathon’s analysis. Combine that with the level of play the Heat managed before the break and the fact that they finally seem to be getting healthy at the right time, and they’ve got a path. Inpredictable’s model gives the Heat a 72 percent chance of finishing as the East’s no. 1 seed; Basketball-Reference.com’s projections are a bit more bearish, but still see Miami landing in the top spot in 60 percent of their simulations.

That doesn’t make the Heat the odds-on favorite to make the Finals for the second time in three years. (The Ringer’s NBA Odds Machine gives the Heat an 8 percent chance of winning the title.) But it does stamp Spoelstra’s squad as a strong contender to emerge from the intensely crowded East—one whose case will likely only get stronger if its principals can finally get some time together to jell.

The half-court questions will linger, but compared to the other contenders trying to navigate massive injuries or integrate new additions midstream, they seem positively quaint; in the ways that count, the Heat know exactly who they are and who they believe they can be, even if they haven’t gotten to see their full picture yet. They haven’t been “doing the same thing every day,” to borrow Butler’s phrase, but they do seem comfortable—in part, perhaps, because they’re a team full of people who’ve proved capable of doing so many different things on any given day, whenever adversity hits. And now, with their main dudes healthy and in place, all that’s left is for the luck to come around, and take them over that edge.