Seven Biggest Questions About The HEAT’s Playoff Push
Commentary // 5 months ago
By: Nekias Duncan
On Tuesday night, the Miami HEAT defeated the Detroit Pistons, 97-96. Miami tried their best to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, committing six of their 12 turnovers in the fourth quarter. Pistons forward Stanley Johnson responded with a hold-my-beer stretch of gaffes, then Hassan Whiteside’s “dirty left” finished the job, beating the Detroit Pistons on a buzzer-beating tip-in:
On Wednesday night, the HEAT took on and knocked off the New York Knicks, 105-88. The win was a good one on three counts. First and foremost, it’s always good knocking off a super team like the Kni-AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.
Beating the Knicks is always a fun one for the fanbase. Add in Carmelo Anthony playing like he had no interest in being there, and the win officially eliminating the Knicks from playoff contention, it’s easy to understand why this one felt better than your average regular season game in March.
But the most important part of Wednesday’s victory was what it meant for Miami’s playoff hopes. With the win and the Indiana Pacers’ 13-point loss to the Memphis
Fizzlies Grizzlies, Miami moved up to the seventh seed in the East. They now sit two games behind the Atlanta Hawks for the fifth seed and the Milwaukee Bucks for the sixth seed.
Miami has seven games left on their schedule beginning with Friday’s rematch at home against New York. So let’s take a look at seven of the biggest questions surrounding the team as they continue their playoff push.
1. WHO SHOULD THE HEAT WANT TO PLAY IN THE FIRST ROUND?
This question is working under the obvious assumption that Miami will hold onto a playoff spot. They won’t end up with anything higher than the fifth seed. Realistically, they’ll probably hang around seventh or eighth because their schedule gets pretty tough after Friday’s Knicks rematch.
A lot could shift at the top of the conference, though. The Cleveland Cavaliers are in a virtual tie with the Boston Celtics for the top seed, the Washington Wizards are only two games back of both, and the Toronto Raptors are only a game behind the Wizards. Based on how the season series have gone, Miami should want to face the Wizards (2-0), Cavaliers (2-1), Raptors (1-2) and the Celtics (0-4) in that order.
Of course, it’s never that easy.
Miami’s only loss to Cleveland this year came in their Dec. 9 meeting, but Miami only had eight players available. Dion Waiters, James Johnson, Justise Winslow, Luke Babbitt and Josh Richardson all missed that game, and all but Winslow (who’s out for the year) hold significant roles in Miami’s current rotation. That should bode well for Miami in a potential series. And it would if “Playoff LeBron” wasn’t an entirely different beast—one that Miami simply doesn’t have the star power to overcome.
Toronto has been a tough enough matchup for Miami this season. Two of their matchups have come over the last two weeks, with Toronto’s star guard Kyle Lowry missing both. With Lowry expected to be back in the fold when the postseason comes around, it’s hard to see Miami scoring enough in the half-court to upset Toronto in a series.
A Miami-Boston series would easily be the most fun to follow. It’d be a battle of two of the most well-coached teams in the league, and the Twitter exchanges between the two fanbases would be lit. Miami matches up relatively well, and they have the defensive chops to keep things close.
Figuring out how to contain Isaiah Thomas in pick-and-roll situations has been a real pain. Solving that puzzle would likely be the difference between pushing—and possibly upsetting—Boston in seven, or bowing out in five.
Miami’s chance at an upset may just be against Washington. If they get Dion Waiters back, they’d have a backcourt capable of matching the John Wall-Bradley Beal combo stride for stride. Hassan Whiteside has been taking Marcin Gortat’s lunch since he became a full-time starter in 2015. Miami owns a pretty sizable bench edge, even with Washington’s trade deadline deal for Bojan Bogdanovic. You could also take the bench edge, literally. Erik Spoelstra vs. Scott Brooks probably leans in Miami’s favor.
2. HOW CONCERNED SHOULD WE BE ABOUT MIAMI’S DEFENSE?
Damian Lillard, DeMar DeRozan and Isaiah Thomas have lit up the HEAT recently. That’s probably made Miami’s defense look worse than it has been. For what it’s worth, the team’s pick-and-roll coverage was especially bad in the Portland game, as SBNation’s Mike Prada wrote about. Schematically, Miami was fine in the other two and have been fine overall.
Miami has a defensive rating of 103.4 over their last six games, ranking eighth in the NBA in that span. You could probably attribute that to a slight uptick in free throw attempts allowed and three-point attempts allowed. A rise in both indicates Miami hasn’t been doing as good of a job of stopping middle penetration. That was surely the case in the Boston game, where Miami allowed Thomas to carve them up. You want Miami to clean that up, but they haven’t been a dumpster fire on defense by any means necessary.
3. MIAMI’S SHOOTING SLUMP: BLIP OR REGRESSION TO THE MEAN?
Miami has been the NBA’s sixth-best three-point shooting team in 2017, canning 37.9 percent of their treys. If you filter that date to Jan. 14, the start of Miami’s unbelievable hot streak, their percentage jumps to 39, second-best in the NBA behind Portland.
Over the last six games, Miami has only shot 32.3 percent of their threes. One sad-but-encouraging sign: They’ve missed a lot of open looks:
I don’t expect Miami to continue missing those type of looks.
4. IS GORAN DRAGIC BYKE?
Entering Miami’s back-to-back stretch against Detroit and New York, Dragic was in a bit of a slump. In the five games prior, Dragic averaged 15.6 points with a 35.7/26.1/75 shooting split as Miami sputtered to a 2-3 record.
Part of that was the absence of Waiters, but a bigger issue may have been a foot injury that was bothering him. His usual explosion wasn’t there, evidenced by how oddly inefficient he was inside of five feet (40 percent).
Dragic has picked up his play over the last two games, averaging 24 points on 45.5 percent shooting. His three-point shooting hasn’t picked up yet (2-8, 25 percent), but he’s converted nearly 78 percent of his looks inside of five feet. The real litmus test will come in Miami’s final five games, where barring injury or resting, Dragic will be matched up against Kemba Walker, Lowry (if he returns), Wall twice and Kyrie Irving.
5. CAN HASSAN WHITESIDE KEEP THIS UP?
Whiteside has been on a tear over the last nine games. He’s averaging 19.1 points, 13.7 rebounds and 2.1 blocks while shooting 58.9 percent from the floor and 78.8 percent from the charity stripe. Those numbers are great, but the encouraging sign is that his numbers haven’t been empty.
For the first time in his Miami stint, the on-off numbers not only reflect Miami has been a better team with him on the court, it shows that they’ve died without him on the court. Miami has a net rating of 8.6 with Whiteside on the court, but that number plummets to -6.7 with him on the bench—a differential of over 15 points per 100 possessions. The offense and defense has been substantially worse with Whiteside on the bench.
There are still question marks remaining. Specifically, how will Whiteside fare in high pick-and-roll situations in the playoffs? Having him drop back has put a lot of pressure on the guards to fight over screens to take away pull-up jumpers. Their inability to do that was how Lillard burned Miami in their last matchup for 49 points. In the last Boston meeting, Whiteside played up in high pick-and-roll, but things like this happened:
Whiteside’s ability to walk that tightrope in pick-and-roll coverage will be key to Miami’s chances of making noise in the playoffs.
6. WILL OKARO WHITE REJOIN THE ROTATION?
I’m in no real position to play armchair coach and question head coach Erik Spoelstra, but the lack of consistent minutes from White is a bit peculiar. White played in 17 of 19 possible games from Jan. 17 to Feb. 27, averaging 15.3 minutes per game. In March, White has racked up four DNPs and has only played 10 or more minutes three times.
Spoelstra seems content with running three guards alongside James Johnson and Willie Reed in bench units, but it’d be nice to see White utilized more. He’s had success as a small-ball 5 and I’d imagine he could be useful in a potential matchup against Cleveland or Boston—both of whom have stretch-5s (Channing Frye for Cleveland, Kelly Olynyk for Boston) off their benches.
7. HAVE WE BEEN TOO HARD ON JOSH RICHARDSON?
Look, man. I think we can all agree that Richardson hasn’t been good this year. He’s looked lost at times, his shot has been iffy, he’s made bone-headed mistakes and he still takes those wild angles (obtuse, word to Ben Dowsett!) when defending pick-and-rolls.
The numbers haven’t been any prettier. He’s averaging a shade under 10 points, but his field goal percentage (38.9) is barely higher than Donald Trump’s approval rating. Among 86 players taking at least four threes per game, only Marcus Smart’s shooting clip (27.7 percent) is worse than Richardson’s (30.2).
Advanced numbers don’t paint him in a good light, as well. His PER (9.8) and true shooting percentage (47.7) are well below average.
With that said, can we stop writing him off as a lost cause? This has been a difficult year for Richardson. It’s his second year in the league, his role and workload has increased with the loss of Dwyane Wade (and now Dion Waiters) and injuries have kept him from establishing a real rhythm for most of the year.
There are still things to like about Richardson. His assist-turnover ratio has improved. He doesn’t force up bad shots often and he’s done a better job of late at getting inside the paint. The largest dip has come from his three-point shooting and that’s cause for pause. But we also don’t have enough of a sample size to overreact either way.
Oddly enough, the biggest swings from Richardson have come when there’s the least amount of resistance. Maybe that’s where you could point to a lack of confidence. I’m obviously not in his head, nor am I a doctor. I will say, however, that I’ve been the “oh, crap, I’m open so I better hit this or I’ll never hear the end of it” guy when I’m in the midst of a cold streak.
Confidence and rhythm matter almost as much as shot mechanics do and that kind of overthinking can ruin your confidence. He does seem to have a solid stroke, so it may just be a matter of him feeling good about himself and his shot. Even if he settles in somewhere in the middle of those two numbers, canning roughly 36 percent of your open threes should be a good enough mark to keep defenses honest.
Defensively, Richardson needs to tighten up. Again, he takes some head-scratching angles in pick-and-roll coverage. On the flip side, you can’t teach the motor and range he has. The combination of length, athleticism and motor he possesses allows him to make plays all over the floor:
He has already shown flashes of being a capable, multi-positional defender and he certainly has the athletic tools to become one. If there’s a coaching staff that can help drill good habits into him, it’s Miami’s.
I’m not asking you to smear poop on a canvas and call it a Picasso, I am asking for everyone to relax on the, “He’s trash and will always be trash” type hot takes. He’s played in 98 regular season games. Give him some time to find himself.