The Miami Heat's playoff picture: Between a Blarney Stone and hard place

As the Eastern Conference’s playoff seeds settle — if you can call a dogfight “settling” — postseason matchups are starting to solidify. For the Miami Heat, if they can hang on for their playoff lives, it looks like a Cleveland Cavaliers or Boston Celtics matchup is inevitable.

So, how does Miami stack up? We’ll get to that.

I was watching the Denver Nuggets versus Miami earlier this week and — spoiler, Miami lost — I had an interesting thought: Miami is legitimately getting outplayed by Denver. And most of my opinion was derived from the performance of Nikola Jokic, who dimed Miami up to the tune of seven assists. He’s a center(!). Jokic also made 72 passes; the Nugget’s point guard, Emmanuel Mudiay, registered 44 during the contest.

Jokic hurt up Miami at seemingly every opportunity. Pass to a cutter, post-ups. It was amazing.

Miami lost their No. 8 seed a few days — or hours, who can keep track? — later. Then, I started to think about who their first round matchup would be. Then, I thought about the talent they might face. LeBron James, Kevin Love, Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford (and more) — all formidable guys. I imagined that Miami was glad they didn’t have to see Jokic for seven games.

Just to make sure, I went to NBA.com and sorted for 6-foot-10 players who averaged at least five assists, in the Eastern Conference. Two stat lines were generated. The first guy: Giannis Antetokounmpo. Although a player to have nightmares over, the playoff seeds won’t allow for Giannis to Greek Freak all over the Heat in the first round. The second guy was Horford, the starting forward (and sometimes center) of the Celtics. He passes, he posts up — he can do poor man’s Jokic-style things. (It’s definitely way too early to describe any All-Star as a poor man’s version of a budding Jokic. But I don’t care.)

Most NBA teams would find themselves flustered playing against a guy that can play-make and score out of the post. Well, Miami isn’t just flustered with them, they’re downright vexed by them. Miami allows .972 points per possession when guarding post-ups, per Synergy Sports They are single-handedly trying to make the post-up efficient again. The tank-happy 76ers do a better job of guarding guys in the post.

Miami is even worse when players pass out of the post; they allow 1.25 points per possession. Now, guess who fills 28.8-percent of his possessions with post-ups, is no stranger to jump-hooks and, since the All-Star break, is tied for being the most frequent passer out of the post, in the East? Paul Zipser of the Chica—I mean, Al Horford.

A pass out of the post versus Miami is more efficient than an open 3-pointer. Horford posts up a lot and can pass out of the post. You don’t need a TI-84 to do that math. On the season, 6-percent of the Boston’s assists come from post-ups, according to NBA.com/Stats. When they play Miami that jumps to 8.7-percent, which doesn’t seem that drastic. Still, the data set it small. In the playoffs, weaknesses get picked on, scabs get ripped off. There’s no hiding in a seven-game series.

So, the Heat want the Cavs in Round 1? No, they want the LA Lakers. The Heat has guys to throw at LeBron — James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Rodney McGruder. Well, they have one guy (Johnson), the rest are more “bodies” to throw at a bull. LeBron fancies a post-up or two himself, which could prove to brutalize Miami’s defense.

On the season, 4.8-percent of Cleveland’s assists come from post-ups, per NBA.com/Stats. When playing Miami, that number jumps to 11.1-percent. The Cavs are exploiting a weakness: Miami’s defense in the post. And Considering that LeBron James is somewhere around adept at passing out of the post (1.19 ppp when the defense commits, per Synergy Sports), Miami is in between a Blarney Stone and a hard place with their possible playoff matchups.

At least they’re not playing Jokic. That could be a nightmare.


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