The Launching Pad: It’s Now or Never for the Heat

Insight4 years ago12 min readNekias Duncan

Welcome to the playoff edition of The Launching Pad, a weekly roundup of Miami Heat basketball. Who’s playing well, and who should pick it up? What numbers should you be watching? What was that beautiful play Miami ran in the second quarter? You can find all of it right here.

The Stats (Game 3 — Game 4) 

• Record: 1-3

• Offensive Rating: 104.4 (109.8 — 91.9)

• Defensive Rating: 111.7 (123.9 — 96.9)

• Pace: 103.3 (100.84 — 110.2)

• True-Shooting Percentage: 56.2 (61.1 — 48.6)

Lineup of the Week (min. 5 minutes, two appearances)

Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson, Josh Richardson, James Johnson, Hassan Whiteside

• Minutes: 21

• Offensive Rating: 107.5

• Defensive Rating: 91.9

• Pace: 104.09

• True-Shooting Percentage: 62.1

The Big Number: -40.0

Miami’s scrappy nature is evident on the court, but it’s equally clear in strategy. With a lack of star power, Miami’s best chance against good teams is to keep things close, then hope to out-execute or out-physical you late in games. That mostly worked for them in the regular season. They ranked 9th in the NBA in fourth quarter net rating (plus 2.9), a mark not too far off the Golden State Warriors (plus-3.2).

In this series, the young-but-poised Sixers have blitzed Miami in the final frame. Miami’s fourth quarter net rating is an almost-impossible minus-40.0 in this series, and they were actually worse during the two-game home stretch (minus-46.3). The Heat just have not been able to find answers on either end of the floor. Their spacier lineups can’t defend; their athletic lineups can’t score. It isn’t all Spo’s fault, but he has not been able to find the right combinations to hold serve.

Trends through two (more)

1. Justise Winslow has arrived

If we’ve learned anything during this series, it’s that Justise Winslow has a fire that burns …

wait for it …

White Hot.

Seriously, he’s been all over the place on both ends of the floor, and a strong argument can be made that he’s been Miami’s second or third best player in the series (which also explains the deficit, but let’s keep it positive for now). Winslow has particularly shined in the last couple of games, averaging 13 points with a 35/56/70 shooting split, eight boards, three dimes, a steal, and a block.

He’s gone from a quiet do-it-all-but-shoot wing to an expletive-chucking fireball. He’s called Ben Simmons a #BAN. He’s stepped on Joel Embiid’s mask on purpose. He’s stared down Philly’s bench after shots. The ugliness of the series has turned him into a different person — or revealed who he’s always been. It’s probably the latter.

Forget the swat (it was incredible) for a minute. Just look at the emotion afterwards:

I mean seriously: since when does Justise take trailer threes?

In general, Winslow has been a force in transition. He’s generating 136.4 points per 100 possessions, and has scored, via bucket or free throw, on nearly 73 percent of his transition opportunities. We’ve seen hints of Downhill Justise for two years, but his woeful finishing have left much to be desired. He’s picked it up the last couple of games:

We still need a larger sample size on his shooting. Every shot in the paint from Winslow is a choose-your-own-ending adventure that typically ends in death. Still, you see the confidence growing. He’s attacked the basket with more of a purpose. He’s always been a gifted defender; now he’s taking matchups personally. There are a lot of things you can say about him, but one thing’s for certain.

Justise Better.

2. The Hassan Whiteside situation came to a head

Whiteside was a virtual non-factor through the first two games of the series. He was basically a no-show in Game 3, and the lack of minutes and touches finally got to him a little bit. His postgame comments were tame, but the frustration and sarcasm seeped through:

I’m not sure if it was his comments, Spo going to the drawing board, or a combination of the two, but there was a slight shift in approach in Game 4. The Heat collectively made more of an effort to get the big man involved. Whiteside finished with 13 points, 13 rebounds, and a block in 26 minutes. It wasn’t a super human effort, but it was nice to see Miami finally feed him a little bit.

Here, Goran Dragic and Whiteside hook up for a pick-and-roll. Dragic draws two, gets Embiid in the air with a pump fake, then feeds Whiteside underneath for a bunny:

I could feel the energy in the arena from my couch when Josh Richardson found Whiteside for this lob:

There’s plenty of blame to go around about Whiteside’s lack of involvement and productivity through Games 1-3, but that doesn’t matter at this point. Whiteside came to play in Game 4, and he’ll need to be even better in Game 5.

3. Tyler Johnson’s disappearing act

This was the first possession of Game 3.

This was the first possession of Game 4.

On both occasions, Tyler Johnson lost track (in a laughable matter) of the most dangerous shooter in the series and got bailed out by a miss.

Johnson has been one of Miami’s most disappointing players in this series. It isn’t from a lack of effort; he’s been playing with a jacked up hand, has been roughed up off the ball on both ends, and is still playing his heart out. His lack of size is just glaring. He hasn’t been able to track Redick at all, and hasn’t been able to get his shot off with any regularity on the other end.

With everyone focusing on Whiteside, this has been the quieter, less sexy version of “Good player, bad matchup” for the Heat. While this more of a blip than a trend, this kind of performance looks even worse because of the money he’s about to start making. His trade value probably took a hit in this series.

4. Relying on Dwyane Wade

Wade has been about as good as you can expect him to be at this stage. He’s averaging 18-4-3 and 1.5 steals in a little over 24 minutes, and his non-three shooting splits (49/92) have been encouraging. He’s picked apart the Sixers in pick-and-roll, and that sort of creation has allowed him to thrive late in games. The Heat have strategically placed him on Philly’s non-shooters so he has free reign to gamble for steals. It’s mostly worked: the defense is almost 17 points per 100 possessions better with Wade on the floor.

But yet … it’s pretty sad at the same time. First, it hasn’t been enough. His mid-range-and-in mastery has been fun, but the Sixers still ignore him off the ball, further shrinking the floor when he’s out there. The offense has been 3.4 points worse with him on the floor — a small number that feels worse based on their overall ineptitude.

Second, it really puts things into perspective about this Heat roster (if it wasn’t there already). Watching Wade torch Philly in the fourth quarter of Game 4 was fantastic, but if you have to rely on a past-his-prime Wade to carry you, the team just isn’t that good. Still, Miami will need that magic if they hope to extend the series. Wade has made a career out of proving doubters wrong, so you can never fully count him out.

Sexy Set

Wayne Ellington running circles around Philly

Ellington has not had a great series. He’s been awful defensively, and his shooting hasn’t opened up the floor like it did in the regular season. Spo has tried to get creative, using him as a screener more to spring him free, or to use his gravity to open things up for others. Still, Ellington is at his best (and most exhausting) when Miami unleashes him in a maze.

This a simple set-up made pretty. Ellington’s initial assignment is to run off a pair of staggered screens to pop open. Redick does a great job of tracking him, so Ellington … just keeps running. The second option in the play is a pick-and-pop with Ellington and Olynyk once the pass is caught on the move. Instead of flowing into that, Ellington decides to abort mission and pull up on a dime.

I’m tired from watching that.


1. Shorten the hook

Spo can’t be locked into certain combos in Game 5. He seems committed to Tyler Johnson for example, but he may need to turn to Rodney McGruder if Johnson can’t tighten up his off-ball defense. If Whiteside isn’t giving it all he’s got, put in Kelly Olynyk or Bam Adebayo. If James Johnson is tentative or loose with the ball, go to Winslow.

This is do-or-die.

2. Get out and run

Conventional wisdom told us that the key to stopping the Sixers was turning the series into a half court battle. Thanks to a bevy of dribble-handoffs, Floppy looks, and way too many YOLO shots, the Sixers have turned things on its head.

Here’s a fun stat: the Sixers have scored more points (82) and shot better coming off of screens (59.2 percent on 49 attempts) than they have in transition (81 points, 42.7 percent shooting on 75 attempts).

Miami has done a fantastic job of getting back on defense and stifling transition attacks. On the flip side, the Sixers haven’t had much of an answer for Miami’s transition attack. They’re generating 121.7 points per 100 transition opportunities, spearheaded by the aggression of Dragic, Winslow, and Josh Richardson.

Miami has struggled all series to score against Philly’s set defense, mostly because of their length and athleticism. Pushing the ball after misses or live-ball turnovers is the only way to catch Philly off-balance.

3. More inverted pick-and-rolls for James Johnson

Johnson is at his best when he’s able to get downhill. One way Miami has been able to do so in the half court is by inverting pick-and-rolls — having guards screen for Johnson instead of the other way around. Dragic has been Johnson’s more frequent partner, but the other “smalls” have gotten in on the fun.

Sixers have been guarding Johnson with a gap in this series, which makes sense considering Johnson’s track record as a shooter. Whenever a guard — Dragic, Wayne Ellington, the Other Johnson — have set screens, Johnson’s man has dropped under so the guards can slide through unscathed. That has opened up bigger driving windows for Johnson to rev his engine, like here:

If Philly is going to give him that much room, Miami should exploit it until they change their minds.

4. Swing it early against traps

Late in Game 3, and often in Game 4, the Sixers started trapping Dragic in high pick-and-rolls to force Miami’s “Others” to beat them. It’s a smart strategy. They have the length to bother Dragic and force turnovers, and nobody else on Miami’s squad generates the level of … well not fear, but the “oh, we better pay attention to this guy” factor that Dragic does.

The defense is aggressive, but beatable if Miami’s is smart and patient. Below, watch how Dragic waits out the trap, swings it, and a good look opens up because of the scramble.

I’m not sure how often Philly will trap tonight, but Miami has to be ready for it.

5. Pray

Ultimately, the Sixers are just a more talented group. They were the hottest team in the league entering the postseason, and they’ve mostly continued their run of dominance. Ben Simmons looks transcendent. Joel Embiid has been sloppy offensively, but his presence on the defensive end has looked Gobert-like. The shooters have gotten hot at the right time (curse you, Marco Belinelli).

Miami will give it their all in Game 5, because they always do, but they’re going to need to catch some breaks. A cold shooting night from JJ Redick or Marco Belinelli, ill-advised passes from Simmons, foul trouble from Embiid. Burning boats. Something. Anything.