Isolation, 3s, Drawing Defenses; How The Miami Heat Have Become an Elite Offense

Insight7 months ago13 min readJohn Jablonka

Who would have thought that the Miami Heat would have the sixth-best offense in the playoffs — better than the Sacramento Kings who had the best offense in the league in the regular season? This is surprising in itself but when you look at their offense against the Boston Celtics, it’s even more surprising.

Their offensive rating against the Celtics is 124.0 per Cleaning the Glass. This would be almost 10 points better than the average in the playoffs. This is almost three points better than the Denver Nuggets in the entire playoffs(which when thinking about it, it’s insane).

So, let’s go through how they’ve been able to have such a great offense and how they’ve been able to adjust and continue to dominate the Celtics on this end.

It All Starts With Isolation

With the way the Celtics defend, the entire offense was going to start with both Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler taking care of business in isolations. Everything depended on their ability to hunt mismatches, punish them effectively by getting easier looks inside(and converting), and draw the defense.

That’s where the offense starts and everything else grows out of it.

Because the Celtics will switch everything and they’ll do so easily. They will switch on-ball screens and they will switch off-ball screens. The second part is where the need to punish those mismatches become important.

An isolation-heavy offense isn’t a great offense in high volume. You don’t want that to be your entire offense. And with the Celtics also switching everything off-ball, that will negate all of the movement and cutting. So, the last resort is to go in isolation.

But the Celtics also don’t want to send much help. Pretty much everyone is a good defender in rotation and they want to limit how much they help off shooters to take away potential kick outs.

So, in the first game that’s what happened:

They were giving them these matchups and both Butler and Adebayo have been able to punish them consistently. This was also one of the reasons why they had to go away from a double big lineup. That lineup for the Celtics has played a big part in their defense being elite, so being able to make that option not viable, is key for the Heat.

Butler has been able to get to his spots whether Robert Williams was in a drop or has switched onto him.

In game two, the Celtics continued with the same game plan. This strategy has worked in the past, so it made sense to still not allow the Heat to get open looks from 3 or put the Celtics in rotation. That’s another thing about this type of defense. It should prevent any type of rotations because you’re keeping every action 1v1 or 2v2.

But Butler had different plans and it probably didn’t help that Grant Williams wanted to talk trash beforehand:

I wonder, though, how long can a team opt in for this defense without sending much and letting a player get comfortable. Butler is shooting:

  • 6-for-8(75.0 percent) at the rim
  • 12-for-28(42.8 percent) from the short mid-range
  • 9-for-21(42.8 percent) from the long mid-range

They’re good numbers but not something that pops out. These aren’t some numbers that should warrant a big change. But would the Celtics be willing to bet on that? The Milwaukee Bucks took that chance and well, that chance got them sitting at home. The more I look at his shooting numbers against the Bucks, the more insane they look:

  • 27-for-35(77.1 percent) at the rim
  • 23-for-38(60.5 percent) from the short mid-range
  • 9-for-19(47.3 percent) from the long mid-range

Now, these are absurd numbers. And these are the numbers where you look at them and think you need to adjust. Butler isn’t doing that against the Celtics, so it made sense why they haven’t adjusted much.

But this time the Heat have another option that can go attack in isolations:

Outside of Butler, I think Adebayo has been the second most important player on offense in this series. His ability to attack in isolation gives the Heat a second option. And what’s even more impressive is the fact that a lot of those shots are at the rim. He’s not settling against Williams or Horford. He’s taking them off the dribble to the rim. He’s aggressive in getting his shot early. He pushes the pace. He even punishes Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown.

Him being able to at least punish the defense even in lower volumes is enough to make that option less viable. It’s been so effective that now there are two players on the Heat that can draw and collapse the defense to make plays for others.

And that’s where the Celtics have adjusted in game three

Isolation Leads to Help Being Drawn

The Celtics have sprinkled in some extra help throughout the series. In the first two games, there wasn’t much emphasis on sending doubles, helping off shooters, or showing help. Though there were times in game one when they did send help randomly throughout the game:

You can see in the first clip when Butler drives middle, Marcus Smart is already near the paint to help on the drive, then once Butler picks up the dribble, he comes to double. Similar thing in the next clip, but this time with Adebayo. He drives. Gets a deep paint touch and draws Smart for a kick to Caleb.

Now, drawing that kind of defense is the first step. The next step is to punish that kind of defense and that’s where Caleb Martin stands out in particular.

Both Smart and Williams have been helping off him in all of the games. So far, he’s been defended by Smart for 39.8 possession and by Robert Williams for 26.1. They’ve been used as a helper when they matched with him and he did.

Did you know that Martin is the team’s second-leading scorer? He’s scored 58 points on 76.3 percent true shooting! I don’t even know how to describe that. He’s shooting:

  • 8-for-8(100.0 percent) at the rim
  • 3-for-6(50.0 percent) from the short mid-range
  • 3-for-3(100.0 percent) from the long mid-range
  • 10-for-21(47.6 percent) from 3pt

Absurd efficiency. I’d say he’s been the team’s third-best and third-most important player in the series. Everything he’s done on offense has been perfect. He’s hit his shots. Constantly beat closeouts. Relocates well and on time. Makes timely cuts. He’s the reason that the Celtics can’t help early the way they did against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Now, in game three, the Celtics adjusted a lot. If you want a more specific breakdown of each individual play, here’s a thread going through that adjustment:

I don’t think the Celtics let Butler go full 1v1 against anyone without sending some help. It was a lot of subtle changes — defense not being glued to shooters, defenders being closer to the paint, earlier help at the nail, earlier help at the rim, rotating early — and also straight-up doubles.

Butler is still able to get his matchups in all of those clips. The Celtics are still switching with ease. But everything is different once Butler has the ball and the side is cleared.

In the first clip, once Butler is in the paint, everyone is focused on him. Al Horford is at the rim. Jaylen Brown is helping off Gabe Vincent in the corner. Tatum helping off Max Strus. This wasn’t there in the first two games.

At the 31-second mark. Notice where Brown and Grant Williams are. Butler is going against Smart and is drawing that kind of defense. Brown is literally at the elbow almost next to him.

There were also possessions like these:

This hasn’t happened before. They weren’t sending doubles like this in the previous two games. But the Heat were still able to get good looks from it. This adjustment hasn’t stopped them one bit. There were some plays that looked like they got caught off guard and they didn’t have a counter for it. But on the times they were ready for it, they got a good look.

This was a significant adjustment for the Celtics and it’s going to be interesting to see what happens in game four. This is saying anyone but Butler. Will they continue to send this aggressive help? Will they go back to the previous strategy seeing as Butler hasn’t been shooting that great? They have limited his shots at the rim pretty well. I’d say the Heat have done a great job at making them pay regardless of what the Celtics throw at them, though.

One key reason they’ve been able to make them pay is because of their shooting.

3s Are Finally Falling

The first thing is, of course, shooting. Shooting is important. Shooting is important for any team to have a good offense. It’s difficult to have a good offense without at least average percentages from deep.

With that said, I also wouldn’t say this is all because of hot shooting. They are shooting 47.8 percent from deep, which shouldn’t be that big of a shock. It is if you believe that the Heat’s shooters are what they’ve shown in this regular season, but if you do include the last season, it’s not that shocking.

This isn’t to make shooting almost 50 percent a normal thing or expected. But good shooters are more likely to heat up. Here are the Heat’s shooters’ 3pt percentages in each of the last two regular seasons and these playoffs:

  • Duncan Robinson: 37.2 → 32.8 → 44.7
  • Max Strus: 41.0 → 35.0 → 37.3
  • Kyle Lowry: 37.7 → 34.5 → 36.5
  • Gabe Vincent: 36.8 → 33.4 → 38.0
  • Caleb Martin: 41.3 → 35.6 → 41.5

If you’re comparing their playoffs to this regular season, where it’s very likely that it could’ve been just a down year, then it does look like an outlier. But if you’re comparing these numbers to the previous season and the player’s careers, then it’s not that surprising.

Strus was shooting over 40 percent. He decreased. Robinson had one of the best shooting stretches in NBA history, so is it surprising he’s shooting well again? How about Lowry who’s a 37 percent career shooter? Vincent only went up around one percent.

Why is the assumption that they are closer to the poor season than the good one? Regardless, the Heat have been able to make their 3s.

One of their most efficient ways of making 3s has been early in the offense.

They are 15-for-23(65.2 percent) on 3s within 15-22 on the shot clock. A quarter of their 3s has been early or very early and they’ve somehow converted on almost 66 percent. That’s one way of getting points up.

But a lot of their 3s have come from when they did draw the defense and put the defense in rotation. That’s how they’ve been able to punish the Celtics in multiple ways. It’s either Butler or Adebayo getting good looks, Martin converting a lot of opportunities by punishing the recovering defense, or knocking down all the good looks:

This is the difference between now, the regular season, and the conference finals from last year. The Heat don’t have to make tough shots. They don’t have to create a lot of looks for themselves. They just have to make the looks that are created for them.


There have been a few, in a way, x-factors in this series that was has played a huge part on offense.

The first one is shooting at the rim. In the series preview, I’ve mentioned how the Heat struggled a lot scoring at the rim. They shot 55 percent! That’s insanely low. The Celtics, on the other hand, shot 71 percent.

That 55 percent would be seven points lower than the worst in the regular season. The 71 percent would rank second. But do you know what the Heat are shooting at the rim now?


A little comparison. The Nuggets are shooting 72.4 percent in the playoffs. The Washington Wizards were also first in the regular season with 72.1 percent. The Heat are shooting 10 percent better. Yep. That was predictable. That was definitely more predictable than their shooting.

Similar to their 3s, one way they got that is in transition:

Guys pushing the pace off makes, off misses, and off steals. The Heat have made an effort to get out and run more. But it’s also a lot of off-ball cutting and capitalizing on advantages:

The Heat’s movement has been superb at getting looks at the rim. A lot it was Martin beating closeouts beautifully and has been perfect at the rim(also didn’t know he had more makes at the rim than Butler, he’s been huge). But a lot of other looks have been from Robinson cutting. He’s taken advantage of the Celtics’ defense to continue with his back cuts and get looks.

That brings us to the final point. Miami RUNS on Robinson and Adebayo. This is a connection like none other. Those 2 have played 30 minutes and the Heat have scored 90 points on 58 possessions(1.55 per possession). Ridiculous.

The best thing about these actions is they can flow into so many things. A simple handoff to get Robinson to attack the drop. A handoff to get the dropping big playing higher to open Adebayo on the roll. A PnR to get Adebayo a lob. A switch to get Adebayo punishing mismatches. Anything you want, you name it.

And this is how the Heat have been able to demolish the Celtics offensively.