Jimmy Butler has missed 19 games, Kyle Lowry has missed 15, and Bam Adebayo has missed 25. Yet, as the NBA regular season resumes tonight after the All-Star Break, the Miami Heat are in first place in the Eastern Conference. The Heat have the same winning percentage as the second-place Chicago Bulls, but have beaten them twice.
Miami is one of the most balanced teams in the league — ranked seventh in offensive rating, sixth in defensive rating, and sixth in net rating. The Heat have hung around in the standings all season, like most of the Eastern Conference with No. 1 and No. 5 only separated by 2.5 games, and have made a huge push since New Year’s. They have won 14 of their last 20 games, including six of their last seven before the break. During that seven-game stretch, four of those wins came consecutively during a six-game road trip, and each of those games was won by 15 points or more.
What has changed in the last couple of months for the Heat (besides health) has been their defense. The only team with a higher defensive rating than the Heat in their last 20 games has been the Boston Celtics. Miami has allowed more than 100 points in a victory only six times since the turn of the year, and one of those was a 111-107 double overtime win against the Charlotte Hornets.
The additions of P.J. Tucker and Lowry have paid off in a major way on that side of the floor. Tucker has been a hustling, offensive rebounding, corner three shooting, brick wall of terror for years. When he and Chris Paul joined the Houston Rockets for the 2017-18 season, the team went from 18th in defensive rating the previous season to sixth. Tucker made Kevin Durant work in the Western Conference Finals that year, with Durant shooting 46.1 percent from the field in that seven-game series that the Rockets would eventually lose. Tucker’s services also helped the Milwaukee Bucks secure their first NBA Championship since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was in his 20s.
Lowry catches a lot of flack for “flopping,” but anyone who draws as many offensive fouls as he does is going to get that label. He is currently second in the NBA in charges drawn, and has drawn the second-most charges in the NBA since 2010. While steals and drawn charges are two different defensive categories, they count for the same offensive stat — turnovers. The Heat force 15.3 turnovers per game — third in the NBA. Lowry also plays strong perimeter defense when not taking a charge, as evidenced by his former team, the Toronto Raptors, finishing fifth in defensive rating during three consecutive seasons from 2017-2020.
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Combine those two with defensive stalwarts in Adebayo and Butler, and Pat Riley’s protege, Erik Spoelstra, as coach, and this has the makings of a unit that can swallow any offense it faces the rest of the way. With the Heat playing at the slowest pace in the league this regular season, 95.4 possessions per game, playoff speed is their speed. A grind-it-out seven game series is their style of basketball which will give any team, from Philadelphia to Phoenix, a problem in the postseason.
Their offense come playoff time will be the only question. Even though it’s currently seventh in the league, over this most recent 20-game stretch it’s 13th. Also, Adebayo took a lot of criticism for his inactivity on offense during the Heat’s first round loss to the Bucks last season.
He certainly can’t have his offensive production crater from 57 percent shooting during the regular season to 45.6 percent like it did in that series, but he will have much more help this time. Tyler Herro is back to the player that he was during his rookie 2019-20 season in which the Heat went to the finals. He’s averaging 20 points per game off of the bench and shooting 37.4 percent from the 3-point line. With Lowry running the point and Herro as the sixth man, that will at least give the Heat options in these low possession playoff games.
The year started with the Brooklyn Nets as the NBA Championship favorite, but that fall from grace has been well documented. The East has turned out to be anyone’s to win, and the West has the two current championship favorites in the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors. Knowing the Heat, key players will likely miss some more time this regular season, but that will be the hope of the whole squad being ready for springtime.
If they remain a top-four seed in the East and are healthy come playoff time, they will be as dangerous as any team in the NBA.