Playoff Breakdown: Isolation Not Working & What Happened in the Third?

Insight7 months ago9 min readJohn Jablonka

The more I think about this loss, the more annoyed I get about it. The Miami Heat had a solid chance to close out this series and sweep the Boston Celtics.

They didn’t play well for most of the game on both ends of the floor, had a horrible start to the second half, and shot terribly from 3, both Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo had off games and had huge turnover issues. AND despite the Celtics making 10 more 3s, having 27 points off turnovers, and shooting 40 percent from 3, they were still in the game at various points.

They had a chance to not make this close earlier in the game. They had a chance to completely blow this out of the water and not give the Celtics any life in third. They managed to stay alive after getting outscored 38-23 in the third quarter. They were always almost there but never got there.

Isolation not working

In game three, we saw the Celtics adjust way too much when it comes to sending help at Butler. I feel like they overcompensated in that game. They went with the anyone but Butler strategy and it didn’t pay off.

Then when I was writing up the piece on the Heat’s offense, it was surprising to see that Butler hasn’t been scoring great from anywhere on the floor. The Celtics have done a great job at limiting his shots at the rim and Butler hasn’t been as accurate from anywhere else as in the regular season.

I wondered why the Celtics adjusted from their usual approach to this extent. Butler did punish them in the first game and later in the fourth in game two, but this hasn’t been the Butler we saw against the Milwaukee Bucks. It’s worth noting that Butler has had trouble in isolation in game two, choosing to go for poorer shots.

And this is key going forward. The Heat’s offense is highly dependent on isolation. They need either Butler or Adebayo to punish mismatches(as the Celtics will give those switches, but there was an adjustment there too. There was an action in the third where they didn’t give up a switch) to get good looks around the paint to force the Celtics to send help. That’s been their offense and it’s been working very well.

This game was a bit different. The Celtics went back to their usual defense of letting Butler and Adebayo go 1v1 without sending much help. It seems that they banked on those going to work without opening other windows.

They again didn’t help off-shooters. They didn’t show help inside the paint. They didn’t collapse. They weren’t in rotation. And because of that, they weren’t able to generate good looks either. They only attempted 32 3s. It also doesn’t help that they shot 25.0 percent.

These were the looks Butler got in isolation. He struggled to create space against Grant Williams and even the process alone to get that switch with under 10 seconds left is poor. Poor spacing when attacking inside the paint. Settling for a fade. Missing open bunnies. MISSING OPEN BUNNIES AGAIN.

I don’t want this to be the analysis but sometimes it’s as simple as players missing looks they usually make.

There were times when Butler did draw help on his isolations but the Celtics did a much better job at making those looks on kick outs much more difficult. I also feel like they did a better job at providing enough help against Butler without actually sending help. They were able to help when needed but were still in a good position to not give up good looks.

But this is just Butler. The whole reason why this year was going to be better is because they have Adebayo now too. He also struggled. There shouldn’t be a game where he doesn’t attempt less than 10 shots when it’s needed.

I know he attempted five in game three but that was more about it being a Butler-centric offense than anything else. This wasn’t that. He had 13 and 17 shots in the first two games. That was needed. When Butler didn’t have it going creating for himself, Adebayo should’ve stepped up.

With Bam, I feel some of it is on him and some of is on the team’s game plan not getting him those actions. Erik Spoelstra doesn’t need to run actions for him to get the rebound and push the ball or be more aggressive when attacking the matchups that he gets. It’s not Spoelstra’s fault that he couldn’t get by Al Horford or settled for long shots against Williams.

But there was no emphasis on getting him the ball in the post and clearing the side for him. I don’t think they run many actions like they did at the 22-second mark. They didn’t screen for him to get switches and create mismatches. It felt like they didn’t involve him much on offense to make his life easier.

So, without both Butler and Adebayo not being able to create shots in isolation to draw help to open up everything else, the offense will be worse.

At the end of the day, we probably aren’t talking about this if Butler makes his shots the way he’s done all playoffs. It will be interesting to see if either team changes anything. I’d bet the Celtics will continue with this strategy and Butler just has to make them pay.

What Happened in the Third

As ineffective as their isolation has been, they were still in the game. They had a lead heading into the second half and had a nine-point lead with just under 10 minutes in the third.

But they weren’t able to close it out. I thought the game was over after this shot:

The game should’ve been over after this shot. What even is Jaylen Brown thinking in situations like this? Why is that the shot that he’s taking?

This was a nine-point lead and the Heat had a chance to grow the lead. This was the perfect time to step on the Celtics’ necks and not give them any life. That nine-point lead should’ve been 11 then 13 and 15. The Heat had good looks to make that happen.

The Heat’s third quarter was strange. They had a horrible six-minute stretch to start it, then it ended with Butler scoring 15 points.

The Heat missed so many good looks inside. Butler was missing the usual shots around the paint, but he was also missing point-blank shots at the rim. Kevin Love missed a hook over White. Adebayo couldn’t finish over Horford.

It was those looks that gave the Celtics life.

That probably wouldn’t have mattered as much if the Heat also didn’t turn it over to go with those missed shots:

A lot of it was dumb, unforced errors. An offensive foul from Adebayo negated a point. A Kyle Lowry double dribbled that took away his 3. Two poor passes. Losing the handle. And all those misses and turnovers gave the Celtics this:

The Celtics were chucking up 3s and now they were able to turn defense into efficient offense. This allowed the Celtics to go on an 18-point run. That was where the game flipped for the Heat.

One final note on the third came on defense and it will be interesting how the Heat adjust. There was quite a little hunting going on and that also happened in the fourth too:

Tatum was going for Gabe Vincent and Strus. For the first time, they let Strus be on an island against Tatum. They didn’t send help and it resulted in a floater. On the next two trips, they sent a double, which opened up a pop for 3 with no one near to rotate or stunt at the shooter.

Things That Caught My Eye

I really like Vincent’s aggression. With no one else really able to run the pick-and-roll and be a threat to score consistently at the rim, in the mid-range or from 3, he has stepped up to that:

There were a lot of Vincent-Adebayo PnRs. Vincent was able to get to the paint, pull up from deep(he even forced Williams to step up at times, as he’s been usually in a deep drop), and also was able to make a sweet pass inside.

The Heat definitely need all of that with no one else being a threat on the ball like this, but there was some questionable decision-making.

Zone. Zone. Zone. More zone defense:

I liked how they went to their zone to start the fourth, especially when Tatum wasn’t on. The Heat did a good job at forcing tougher looks and not allowing anything inside until Tatum was on where he flashed middle for an open look.

There were far too many poor offensive possessions that went nowhere, didn’t create any advantages, late clock offense or simply ended in turnovers. The process seemed bad for everyone at times. Didn’t like what they were doing at times and how they were set up