Stop me if you’ve heard this conversation before:
“Who’s going to win the East?”
“Probably Milwaukee, but maybe Philly or Brooklyn after their trade.”
“What about Miami?”
“Oh, uh, they definitely have a chance!”
Miami has had a stellar regular season despite constantly fluctuating lineups (third-most missed games in the NBA). They rank fourth in overall point differential (first in the East) and have the league’s fifth-best defense and seventh-best offense.
So why don’t the Heat get the respect of some of these other teams? It’s true that they don’t have a Giannis or an Embiid. But Miami is primed for a massive playoff run even without a top-five player.
Playoff basketball tends to exacerbate a team’s weaknesses. Superior competition and focused coaching allow teams to pick at opposing weak points like a toddler poking at a scab.
Like all teams, the Heat have a few soft spots today. But closer examination shows a team whose vulnerabilities are likely to matter far less in the playoffs after a few minor tweaks.
First Weakness: Fouls
The Heat only have one truly glaring team weakness on the defensive end: they foul a whole lot.
The Heat allow 20.4 made free throws per 100 possessions, fifth-most in the NBA. It’s not just bad luck, either, as the Heat are squarely in the middle of the league in opposing free-throw percentage.
Casual observers of the Heat might think they understand this stat. After all, this is a squad made up of notoriously tough and physical defenders; seems reasonable to assume that they’re going to foul people along the way, right?
Actually, no. Four of the Heat’s top six players foul significantly less than the median for their position (snippet from Cleaning The Glass):
Example: Kyle Lowry fouls on 3.3% of his team’s defensive plays, which puts him in the 30th percentile (below the median) for point guards
Out of big-minutes players, only Lowry and Robinson are foul magnets. Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Jimmy Butler, and PJ Tucker (partially due to being dubbed positionally as a “big” instead of a “wing”) all do a good job of avoiding whistles. Butler, in particular, is noteworthy for his unbelievable ability to guard opponents’ best wing players without fouling (Butler and Tyrese Haliburton are the only NBA starters averaging more steals than fouls per game this season).
Foul machines like Gabe Vincent and Dewayne Dedmon will play less often in the playoffs when rotations tighten. Replacing their minutes with less foul-prone players will shore up the Heat’s defense overall.
A specific note about Kyle Lowry: not all fouls are created equal. Many result from him trying to take charges, which he is inordinately successful at doing and which provide a meaningful benefit above and beyond your garden-variety reach foul. Like the hit-ahead passes that occasionally lead to turnovers highlighted below, Lowry’s bevy of positive plays means that he’s more likely to incur negative ones, too.
Second Weakness: Turnovers
The Heat have the fourth-highest turnover percentage in the league, a rare unsightly blemish on their otherwise-pristine statistical profile.
Watch enough Heat games, and you’re bound to see plays like this:
The first clip is an inevitable by-product of the Heat’s playstyle. Lowry is the king of hit-ahead passes, and they result in excellent scoring opportunities for the Heat far more often than they result in turnovers. If you’re going to be aggressive, mistakes will happen on occasion, and that’s a price you’re willing to pay.
The second clip is a bit more unusual. Jimmy Butler throws an absolutely gorgeous pass, but Gabe Vincent isn’t expecting it. He doesn’t make his cut at full speed, a sin that lots of players make, but that rarely gets noticed (to be fair, that play wouldn’t work if a better defender than Charlotte’s Montrezl Harrell was manning the middle, which is likely why Vincent wasn’t expecting it).
The Heat run a complex offense that requires constant off-ball movement and relies heavily upon players making appropriate reads. In the playoffs, everybody goes full throttle, and opportunities like that won’t be squandered by a half-speed cut. The Heat have had a variety of turnovers like this that are miscommunication-based or because two players aren’t on the same page. If the Heat can stay healthy down the stretch, their core lineups will gain more familiarity with each other, resulting in improved chemistry and fewer mistakes.
It’s also a playoff axiom that turnovers decrease across the board. Playoffs bring increased focus, and sloppy mistakes don’t happen nearly as much. The margin between the Heat’s turnover rate and a more cautious team’s will decrease as the absolute number of turnovers for both sides go down.
In short: the Heat’s turnover problem, a hindrance to their offense today, will likely diminish naturally in the playoffs.
Third Weakness: Half-court offense
Ooh boy. Now we get to the real issue. The Heat do a tremendous job on defense of forcing turnovers and running in transition, where they feast. Their half-court offense, however, can leave something to be desired.
Miami has the seventh-best offense overall but only the 13th-best half-court offense, behind every other current Eastern playoff team except Cleveland and Toronto. The playoffs typically slow things down, and it’s harder to create live-ball turnovers and get out in transition.
Coach Erik Spoelstra tries to alleviate this through a beautiful offense with countless off-ball screens, misdirection, and backdoor cuts, but playoff opponents with time to scout can counter many of those. Shooters like Duncan Robinson and Max Strus have to fight hard just to catch the ball, much less get a shot off.
If movement and shooting dry up, a dynamic dribble-drive game becomes essential. The Heat are towards the bottom in the league in drives per game, even accounting for pace. This is partly by design and partly due to a lack of dynamic ballhandlers.
Jimmy Butler’s lack of a reliable jumper means he has to either draw a foul or get to the rim to generate offense for himself. When it works, we have him scoring 40 points against the Lakers in a Finals game without attempting a single three; when it doesn’t, he gets smothered by refs that swallow their whistle and a Bucks defense hell-bent on shutting down his lanes. Regardless, we know that Butler will deliver more often than not if he’s given some breathing room.
Robinson and PJ Tucker’s corner sharpshooting will help space the floor in that regard, but Lowry and Herro will be key, as they are the only perimeter players capable of getting into the teeth of a defense.
Lowry has finished excellently at the rim this season (on low volume). He loves to get all the way to the basket before pumping and throwing up shots from strange angles:
That’s a tough bucket, and we haven’t seen too much of it this season, but it’s the exact kind of play that sucks in the defense’s attention and creates later opportunities for teammates.
I would never describe Lowry as passive, but there are times when he seems content to let his passing do all the work. An aggressive Lowry who seeks his own shot opens up the Heat offense in a way that nobody else can. The Heat are filled with intelligent cutters and shooters, and a driving Lowry creates enough gravity that those other guys will have more opportunities for themselves, as well.
Herro has a different issue. He’s great at setting up defenders for the drive with sidesteps, hesitations, and buttery-smooth crossovers, but he loves to pop for short jumpers and floaters instead of getting all the way to the hoop. Tyler will need to turn a few of these:
That’s easier said than done! Herro tends to shy away from contact, but he’s big and strong enough that he should be able to get into a defender’s body and draw the foul, if nothing else. Not settling for the easy shot is crucial to improving the Heat’s half-court offense.
Herro’s incredible footwork this season compared to prior years speaks to a player eager to improve, and I expect that finishing at the rim and drawing fouls will be a major point of emphasis in the offseason with trainer Drew Hanlen. For the Heat to fix their most glaring weakness by the playoffs, however, Tyler will need to accelerate the learning curve.
They say that playoff basketball is a different sport, and in many ways, that’s true. Regular season strengths and weaknesses look different against superior competition and with a shortened rotation.
Luckily for the Heat, two of their most significant flaws should be easily fixable and/or less relevant, leaving only the half-court offense to worry about. If Herro and Lowry can tweak their games just a smidge more towards getting layups and drawing fouls, the Heat will turn a weakness into a strength, cementing their case as the favorite in the East.