How The Miami Heat Caught Fire: The NBA Wraparound
Seemingly draft lottery-bound in December, the Heat have won 12 straight games and could sneak into the NBA Playoffs.
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LeBron James publicly called out his own team's management, and also Charles Barkley. Draymond Green and Kevin Durant have gotten into bench shouting matches that may or may not be serious. Phil Jackson is awkwardly feuding with Carmelo Anthony, and Charles Oakley was forcibly removed from Madison Square Garden. Yes, the last month has been pretty busy in the NBA—and yet, the best story in basketball has been all but ignored.
Namely, the Miami Heat have not lost a game since a week before the end of Obama's presidency.
Exactly four weeks ago, the Heat were sitting at 11-30, coming off their fourth straight loss and 13th defeat in 16 games. For all intents and purposes, their season was over. Second-year wing Justise Winslow had just been ruled out with a torn labrum in his right shoulder; before that, Miami had lost Chris Bosh, Josh Richardson, and Josh McRoberts. With no identity and virtually no hope, the usually-competitive franchise looked locked in a downward spiral.
And then, something happened. Something historic. The Heat won 12 straight games, the most ever by a NBA team with a losing record. And that streak is still going! Miami is the hottest team in the league, and largely is winning games behind heroic efforts from a motley crew of cast-offs and no-names.
Seriously, how many NBA fans could pick Rodney McGruder out of a lineup?
The Heat are currently just two games out of making the playoffs as the Eastern Conference's eighth seed. They're playing an exciting, even inspiring brand of basketball that has made them one of the best underdog stories in recent league memory. Let's take a closer look at how they're doing it.
Picking Their Spots
Lacking a superstar, the Heat have become an incredibly unselfish and smart offensive team that features a balanced attack, near-perfect spacing, and few mistakes. During Miami's 12-game win streak, six different players are averaging double figures in points. And all of the Heat's players are making their opponents work.
Hassan Whiteside has been Miami's defensive anchor. He also owns the offensive glass, creating a strong baseline gravity that pulls on whichever rim-protecting defender has been deployed to patrol the paint. Meanwhile, the other four Heat players move the ball around the arc so quickly—and cut so constantly—that opposing players are forced to make several rotations on each play.
According to NBA.com, Heat players over the 12-game win streak have run the fifth-furthest distance on offense of any team in the league, despite playing at the 23rd-fastest pace. Possession after possession, Miami forces defenders to chase players around screens from one side of the court to the other, while also tracking the basketball during several quick passes and ball reversals.
In the clip below, watch how much distance and how many reads Wayne Ellington's man has to make in a single play: he's forced to hedge a ball screen, recover to the corner, fight through a double stagger screen along the baseline, sink to the block to help the post, and then close out again in the opposite corner. And that's just one defender. All five Milwaukee defenders are forced to make several reads down the court as the Heat players make extremely quick reads, waiting patiently for opportunities to attack off of the dribble once the defense falls a split second behind:
Coaches like to say that the NBA is a make-or-miss league. Over the Heat's 12-game streak, eight different players are averaging at least one three-point attempt per game, and six of those eight players are shooting 38 percent or better. That's pretty good! Dion Waiters and Goran Dragic have been especially hot, both shooting over 50 percent on 4-plus attempts per game. Add hot shooting to great spacing and, voila, there are plenty of open driving lanes for the many Miami players who are great at breaking down defenders off the dribble.
Dragic and Waiters have been the dribble penetration go-to guys, as both guards rank in the NBA's top seven in drives per game during the win streak. But they're not driving willy-nilly. Impressively, the Heat are careful about picking their spots. Like a boxer who throws jabs and fakes to get his opponent off balance before unleashing a vicious punch combination, Miami attacks defenses by working the ball around the perimeter, forcing rotations, waiting for driving lanes to open up, and then collapsing help side defenders into the paint.
Once that happens, the Heat do one of the most underrated things in basketball: pass up good shots to get great ones. Many of Miami's players are cast-offs or D-League call-ups; perhaps that's why they seldom take ill-advised attempts early in the shot-clock. In the clip below, the Heat run one of their favorite actions, a double high screen with their two bigs. Luke Babbit receives the pass on the roll and has a decent look at a baseline jumper against the slow-footed Brook Lopez. Yet rather than fire away, Babbit drags Lopez away from the rim and resets the play, all so the Heat can exploit a better mismatch in the post:
Plays like that seem simple enough, but they require trust and unselfishness. It isn't always easy to make the right read on a play when the right read is to reset the ball and get out of the way. The Heat routinely do that, and it helps maximize their offensive efficiency.
A Fire-Breathing Dragon
While Miami is winning with team-oriented basketball, Dragic's career year is the engine that makes everything work. He's shooting 46.4 percent on pull-up three pointers this season, the second-best percentage of all NBA players to attempt at least one per game, and 44.5 percent from behind the arc overall—a career-high, and the third-highest mark of all players to attempt at least 100 three-point shots this season.
Dragic has been so good that the Heat have dusted off one of their favorite pet plays, Chest Flare—something they used to run for Ray Allen back in the Heatles days—and let Dragic take over as the frontman:
Dragic is also a master of off-rhythm scoring moves and tricky footwork. Combine those skills with him being left-handed, and he becomes an unusually tough cover. Watch how he attacks the basket at full speed, and then either slows abruptly at the last second or completely stops on a dime as the defense flies by:
Dragic is a crafty and unselfish player, and Miami's new spread offense fits his abilities perfectly. He's also getting some unexpected help.
James Johnson, Playmaking Four?
After losing weight over the offseason, James Johnson has become the most skilled NBA stretch-four that no one is talking about. Standing 6-foot-9 and blessed with the sturdy build of a heavyweight mixed martial artist—Johnson has a second degree black belt, an 8-0 record in MMA matches and a 20-0 record in kickboxing matches—Johnson has the size to overpower smaller forwards down low. But this year, he's unexpectedly showing off guard skills: passing, ball-handling, three-point shooting, and playmaking.
The Heat use Johnson as a sort of backup point guard from the power forward position. Though he comes off the bench, he plays starter-level minutes, and closes most games with Miami's first unit. During the second and third quarters of games, the Heat have him run their offense, even when he's playing alongside Dragic or Tyler Johnson. Look at how smooth Johnson moves, and remember that he's as tall as LeBron James and nearly as thick as DeMarcus Cousins:
Johnson is averaging a career-high 3.3 assists in just 26 minutes per game, mostly off dribble handoffs but occasionally from running the point in pick-and-rolls. He excels even more as the screener in Dragic pick-and-rolls. The two players mesh in a way that recalls Steph Curry and Green, with Dragic a threat to pull up from behind the arc and Johnson a threat to pass or finish on the roll. In the clip below, notice all the different ways Johnson is able to finish the play when he rolls off of the screen and receives the pass:
Johnson has been impressive on defense, too, using his quick feet and smart positioning to contain opposing guards, and his strength to bang with opposing centers. He moves his body and keeps his arms out wide, avoiding cheap fouls:
Outwork Everyone And Never Give Up
The Heat play like they have something to prove. That's not a coincidence. Waiters has been a high-profile castoff over his five NBA seasons. Whiteside got his start as a D-League success story before signing a $98 million deal this offseason. Johnson has played for five different teams in his eight seasons, including two stints with the Toronto Raptors. Okaro White was called up from the Sioux Falls SkyForce, Miami's D-League affiliate, and given a 10-day contract on the day the Heat's winning streak started. A pure hustle forward with a reliable outside shot, he since has become a part of the rotation, earning a multi-year deal.
The Heat win almost every 50-50 ball and defend for 24 seconds every possession. Not surprisingly, Miami has the NBA's best DRTG during their win streak, holding opponents to just 100 points per 100 possessions. Only the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs are in the same ballpark.
Miami isn't making national headlines just yet, and the Heat almost certainly aren't going to threaten the Eastern Conference's top teams if they're able to sneak into the playoffs. But for a franchise that lost James two years ago, Bosh last season, and Dwyane Wade last summer—and a team that has had almost every unlucky break work against them over the first two months of this season—the Heat are as big of a success story as you'll find in the NBA. And that's worth watching.
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