Caleb Martin has been the third-best player on the team that’s poised to win the Eastern Conference, and announcers still can’t get his name right.
Caleb is one-half of the Martin twins; the other, Cody, plays for the Charlotte Hornets. Several times during these playoffs, Caleb has been misidentified as “Cody” after a highlight play or defensive stop by the very people whose job it is to know exactly who is on the court at all times. But regardless of what he is called, Martin’s postseason play has turned heads.
To be fair, Martin’s stats these last few weeks don’t pop off the page: 13 points, five rebounds, two assists, a steal. But unlike last year, when Martin rode the pine once the serious games started, the 27-year-old Caleb has maintained his role as the Heat’s sixth man deep into the playoffs. Injuries to Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo have opened up some minutes, but Caleb has forced Spoelstra’s hand with steady, aggressive, two-way play.
Let’s start with the obvious: Martin (like most of the Heat’s roster) dramatically improved his shooting once the playoffs began, particularly from deep. Despite playing virtually the same number of minutes, Martin has increased his volume to 4.6 triple attempts per game (up from 3.3) and accuracy to 41.5% (up from 35.6%).
Those numbers have improved even more in three games against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. Caleb Martin is currently 10-for-21 from deep against the Boston Celtics through three games; Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are a combined 7-for-40. (Boston fans, don’t do it! You have so much to live for!)
Those 21 attempts are the most from any Heat player, and it’s partially due to a defensive wrinkle the Celtics employed dating back to last year’s playoffs (which worked a bit better back then). Boston has used Robert Williams as the ostensible Martin defender for long stretches of this series, particularly in Game 2, stationing him near the paint to protect on drives while leaving Martin alone on the perimeter.
The C’s bet big money that Martin couldn’t make them pay; now, they’ve got questionable characters with names like Bullet-Tooth Tony knocking on their door at midnight and demanding their money back — with interest.
Watch as Martin lifts up to the wing to receive a Bam screen. Williams doesn’t want to leave the paint, and he just watches as Martin splashes a wide-open three. Grant Williams should have helped, but he does the same:
Heat opponents have continually left Caleb open in misbegotten efforts to contain Jimmy Butler, but Martin consistently and confidently has found the mark.
Martin’s hardly a stay-in-the-corner kind of player, though. In the absence of Herro and Oladipo, all of the Heat’s role players have had to assume a larger ballhandling burden. Martin is averaging 2.1 dribbles per touch, up from 1.6 during the regular season; his 2.0 minutes of possession are fifth on the Heat, behind just the stars (Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo) and point guards (Gabe Vincent and Kyle Lowry). He’s the epitome of the 0.5-second rule: he shoots, drives, or passes without hesitation almost immediately upon receiving the ball.
Shockingly effective off the bounce, Martin has a quick first step and underrated strength. Here, he beats the far larger Julius Randle by putting a shoulder into his chest before muscling up a layup between Randle and Knicks’ center Isaiah Hartenstein for the and-one:
That’s a difficult shot, but Martin is 24-of-32 on shots at the rim these playoffs. He’s been automatic on layups, even converting some HORSE-shot-looking running hooks over bigger (but not badder) defenders.
Caleb has always been an animal on the fast break — his athleticism works wonders for that — but he’s turned it up another notch in the playoffs. Per Synergy, Martin is averaging 1.43 points per transition possession in the playoffs, behind only Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis, and Devin Booker among the 48 players with at least 20 such possessions.
Forget sweat; confidence is oozing out of every pore. Martin is playing his best ball of the season at the most important time, and he knows it. Imagine waving off Jimmy Butler, in the midst of an all-time 56-point heater, to stare down Giannis and then jack up a contested toe-on-the-line two (a Caleb special) in the two-time MVP’s face:
Given the above circumstances and additional context (down three near the end of the fourth in an absolutely critical Game 4 against a heavily-favored one-seed), that’s one of the most brazen shots you’ll ever see a role player take.
But it’s Martin’s versatile defense that has earned him Coach Spoelstra’s trust. Martin is a shapeshifting 6’5” wing capable of credibly guarding point guards and power forwards, and he typically defends the other team’s best player: his primary matchups this postseason have been Jalen Brunson (who torched Caleb and everyone else the Heat had, to be fair), Jrue Holiday, and Jayson Tatum.
Martin, like most of the Heat rotation, is physical and handsy. He rarely gambles out of turn and doesn’t let players off the hook by losing the position battle. It’s certainly possible to score on him, but opponents have to work for it — in fact, his only defensive skill that’s truly elite is his screen navigation. In a nutshell, he’s unshakeable and annoying, the itch right in the small of your back that you can’t quite reach.
The Heat have surprisingly few two-way players on the roster and even fewer with any flexibility. Duncan Robinson, Max Strus, and Kevin Love have to work nightly to provide enough offensive value to counter their defensive deficiencies; Kyle Lowry and Gabe Vincent aren’t capable of regularly muscling up bigger players. Really, outside of Bam and Butler, the Heat’s only versatile player is Vincent. He knows his role on offense but has enough confidence to break out of his box when there’s an opportunity. Defensively, he can hold up against anything thrown his way.
The numbers back this up: Caleb Martin has the highest on/off point differential of any Miami player. The Heat are +19.1 points per 100 possessions better with Caleb on the floor than off (Duncan Robinson is second at just +8.3; Jimmy Butler is a tick negative!).
Roderick Boone of the Charlotte Observer had a great story last year about how the Heat only invited Martin to a tryout thanks to rapper J. Cole. Cole may have been on him first, but audiences are starting to learn Caleb’s name. Maybe the announcers will follow suit one day.