The early bird gets the worm. That’s how it goes in life -- in shopping, dating (don’t insinuate) and sometimes NBA basketball. And with the postseason in sight, the early bird is going to find it increasingly more difficult to get that worm, making is all that more rewarding when they can pick one off.
In the NBA playoffs, a time when the half-court offense is held on high and easy (often early/fastbreak) points are hard to come by -- are the Miami Heat playing in a way that is conducive to long term (playoff) success?
The Heat’s field goal percentage when getting a shot off with 18-15 seconds remaining on the shot clock, regarded as “early,” according to NBA.com/Stats, is 49.5 percent. If that were their regular season field goal percentage, they’d lead the league. But that 49.5 isn’t a standout mark; every team shoots better early in shot clock. The early bird gets the worm. Usually.
(The Heat shoot better even earlier in shot clock, but between 24-18 seconds on the shot clock, we’d be seeing a lot of fast break shots and breakaway layups. We’re focusing on half-court offense.)
The same but different
The Heat convert 49.5 percent of their “early” shots, yet their offense only yields 11.8 percent of such possessions. Sometimes certain offenses just don’t produce shots early in the shot clock. Look at the Spurs: 11.5 percent of their shots come early (18-15 second remaining on shot clock). The same timing similarities between both teams exist in the witching hours of the shot clock, as well. The Heat take 12 percent of their shots “late” in the shot clock (fourth-most in the league) regarded as 7-4 seconds remaining on the shot clock, per NBA.com/Stats; and the Spurs launch 12.1 percent of their shots “late” in the shot clock, third-most in the league.
Actually, if you put most of the Heat’s and Spurs’ statistics side-by-side, you wouldn’t see a big difference, barring assists. One of the more razor-close numbers both the Heat and Spurs have in common, is PACE (possessions per 48 minutes); the Heat average 95.81 possession per game and the Spurs average 95.85 (the fifth- and sixth-least possessions per game in the Association.)
But we can’t exactly anoint the Heat “Spurs-East” yet.
As you can see, the lion’s share of advanced metrics between the two teams are similar. Now, look at the figures located in the red box. With almost the exact same amount of possessions as the Spurs (separated by .04), the Heat are less efficient. Per 100 offensive possessions, the Heat are 4.3 points point worse than the Old Man River Walks. And per 100 possessions on defense, the Heat are five point worse than San Antonio. The difference of both teams’ net ratings: plus-9.3, favoring the Spurs! Meaning that, though both teams play at a near identical pace, the Spurs are demonstrably more efficient on both ends of the floor.
The reason the Spurs can afford to play at their paint-drying pace is due to their ability to make possessions count; they are a symphony-like in tune team that screens, passes and runs set-plays well. Not to mention, they are one of the last teams that can still plays two, true bigs in Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge, encouraging a slower pace while focusing on rebounding and ball security. (Yet the Heat start Luol Deng at the power forward, a 6-9 guy who can run and stretch the court.)
And that is not to say that the Heat aren’t all of those good things mentioned, too, just to a lesser extent. It’s not shocking when you realize Miami plays two rookies and fledgling center regular-to-heavy minutes in Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson and Hassan Whiteside. Granted all of these players are very talented, they are still inexperienced.
Even then, it would take more than just a few added years of experience to accrue the continuity of an organization like the Spurs.
Rivers turned to puddles, and pumpkins
Too often the Heat have their initial pick-and-roll interrupted, resulting in a lackluster possession; a flowing river devolving into a puddle. If the lob isn’t viable, the cup is being guarded and the second option isn’t there, the Heat, like Cinderella’s carriage late into the clock, can turn into a pumpkin, passing out and holding the ball, then passing, then holding -- only to yield a ill-advised, but necessary, jumper before the shot clock strikes midnight (zero). No resets, just stagnation.
The Heat heave the fifth-most shots in the “very late” shot clock range (4-0 seconds remaining on the shot clock), in the Eastern Conference, per NBA.com/Stats. And they hold the crown for the most shots taken “late” in the shot clock range (7-4 seconds remaining on the shot clock), in the Eastern Conference. Some of these shots are designed. Some are not, especially the ones of the “very late” variety.
Since the All-Star break, the Heat and coach Spoelstra have embraced a new free-flowing style. Most of their offensive sets initiate with a high screen and roll, followed by perimeter movement and rotations. Which can work when the Heatles cut, screen and pass with purpose. But due to its simple infrastructure, their offense can break down as easily as it spits out points. A missed look can at times derail the offense.
The Heat’s organic offense can generate a salvo points, as seen in March, where the Heat were the second-highest scoring team in the league: 110.2 points per game. (With 114 points per game, the Warriors were the highest scoring team in March.) The Heat, a below average 3-point shooting team, shot 40.6 percent from beyond the arc in March; they shoot the 3 at 33.9 percent on the season. As fun as it was to watch -- and it was fun, thanks to Josh Richardson and Joe Johnson -- we’re sure to see some regression to the mean.
In March, nearly 87 percent -- 14.5-of-16.7 -- of the Heat’s 3-point attempts were regarded as open-to-wide open (closest defender 4-6 feet-plus away), something that is all but certain to be curtailed when teams can game plan for the Heat’s newest sharpshooters.
So the question must be asked: Can the Heat sustain their efficiency levels with their free-flowing offense in the postseason? Recently, their offense has seen an uptick in pace, but, like the shooting, that will most likely regress in the postseason.
There’s hardly any luck in the playoffs. A seven-game series will dress a team down, exposing all the warts and carbuncles (don’t look those up). But Heat are just hoping the playoffs don’t reveal a pumpkin.
(All statistics according to NBA.com/Stats.)