The Launching Pad: Heat In Their Zone, Jones Jr’s Crash Course, Richardson’s Quiet Progression
Insight // 3 months ago
By: Nekias Duncan
Welcome to 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 here, every Monday.
The Stats (Weekly stats in parentheses)
• Record: 13-16 (2-2, 9th in the East)
• Offensive Rating: 105.6 (103.2)
• Defensive Rating: 106.4 (108.4)
• Net Rating: minus-0.8 (minus-5.2)
• True-Shooting Percentage: 53.3 (51.7)
• Pace: 100.81 (94.88)
• Time of Possession: 14.3 seconds (15.4)
Lineup of the Week (min. 10 minutes)
Tyler Johnson, Rodney McGruder, Josh Richardson, James Johnson, Hassan Whiteside
• Minutes: 11
• Offensive Rating: 142.9
• Defensive Rating: 95.2
• Net Rating: plus-47.7
• True-Shooting Percentage: 74.3
• Pace: 87.78
The Big Number: 5.5
Big number? More like the small number.
The Heat played four games over this past week. #TheKids — Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, and Bam Adebayo — logged a grand total of 22 minutes together over that stretch. 5.5 minutes per game for the trio of the future is baffling for rather obvious reasons, but I suppose there’s no reason to yell into the wind about it.
Except for here. This counts.
1. The Heat are in their zone — literally
It felt like defense was a foreign concept to the Heat at the beginning of the season. You could attribute it to injuries, an adjustment period to the new rules, general sloppiness, or some combination of the three. The Heat have settled into the top ten over the last month or so, thanks to a rather odd development: they’re throwing teams off with a 2-3 zone.
Teams having zone principles in their defensive schemes isn’t a new development. The Heat, however, have taken it back to the college days. They generally wait until their (hybrid) second unit is in before they unleash it, but when they do, the opposing offense generally shuts down.
Via Synergy Sports, the Heat are allowing just 80.8 points per 100 possessions when employing their zone. Opponents are turning the ball over on more than 13 percent of their possessions. You can primarily thank two players for that: Bam Adebayo and Derrick Jones Jr.
Adebayo has been his usual mobile self. He’s able to rotate out to the corner when needed, but also lock down the paint when necessary. The most important part, or at least the most impressive part to me, has been his work as a communicator. He has done a fantastic job of directing traffic in the zone. He was arguably Miami’s most vocal player over the past week, making sure guys are in their spots and reacting to swings in an appropriate manner.
Jones Jr, on the other hand, has been Miami’s best free safety. He’s already active, bouncing on his toes as he surveys the action before him. That energy, combined with his length and anticipation makes him a legitimate weakside terror.
Jones Jr. racked up 10 steals over the course of the week, with six of them coming off of errant passes. Cross-court swings were picked off at a rate that even Eli Manning would find alarming.
Of course, attempting shots around him didn’t end well either. His pogo-stick hops aren’t just for dunking, apparently:
Jones Jr’s rim protection is something we should start paying more attention to. He swatted six shots last week, but altered many others with his endless arms. On the year, 175 players listed at 6’10 or shorter have defended at least 35 shots at the rim. None of them have allowed a lower field goal percentage than Jones Jr’s 43.6 percent clip.
The zone has been effective for Miami, but it’s worth noting that they aren’t doing anything revolutionary here. From a schematic standpoint, a 2-3 zone is pretty easy to beat, and these are professionals of the highest order. Beyond that, the more the Heat go to their zone, the more film opposing teams will have on it. It’ll be interesting to see how it holds up once the surprise factor is completely gone.
2. Derrick Jones Jr: Heat-seeking missile
Oh, we aren’t done with Airplane Mode.
His defense deserves to be praised. He’s gone from a flashy-but-poor defender to a legitimate impact player on that end. His physical profile always led you to believe he could become a terror, but it’s a little surprising to see him start to put things together so quickly.
The other side of the ball has always been more of a question mark. He has never been a plus-shooter, though he’s made strides this season. His handle is loose, there’s no post game, and his non-dunk finishing hasn’t been great. Those questions will need to be answered at some point.
For now, it seems like Jones Jr has found his role: crashing the glass like it’s nobody’s business.
Though the Heat normally prioritize getting back in transition over hunting for offensive rebounds, Head coach Erik Spoelstra has given Jones Jr. the freedom to attack misses. The results have been positive, to say the least.
Jones Jr led the team with 12 offensive rebounds last week. Despite his slender frame, he was able to beat bulkier players to the ball by simply leaping over them.
Technically, Kyle Kuzma has the inside track for this rebound. It just doesn’t matter. Jones Jr high-points the ball like a freaking wide receiver to create an extra possession. The same could be said for this board over this squadron of Pelicans:
The Heat have now rebounded 34.7 percent of their own misses with Jones Jr on the court this season, a mark nearly three percentage points higher than the league-leading Nuggets (31.6). If he can’t cash in on his own opportunities yet, creating extra chances for others is a fine alternative.
3. Josh Richardson is still growing
Richardson has seen a much brighter spotlight this season — a new role, plus getting taken off the table in Jimmy Butler discussions will do that for you. It’s been a predictably inconsistent year for Richardson as he adjusts to a massive increase in usage and responsibility. After a hot shooting start to the season, he’s tailed off considerably. He’s knocking down just 30.4 percent of his threes (6.7 attempts) over his last 10 games, and his finishing hasn’t really returned yet (50.6 percent inside of three feet).
Still, there are positives of Richardson’s process, even if the results aren’t there right now. He closed out the week strong, averaging 20 points and 5.5 assists against the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans. What stood out most to me was his passing, particularly his timing on his dishes.
This isn’t a difficult read at all, but this was an important play. Earlier in the season, Richardson would’ve either taken an extra dribble inside, or he would’ve picked up his dribble to make a (more comfortable) overhead pass. Either option would’ve given a help defender more time to rotate over to Kelly Olynyk. He still could’ve taken that three, but there would’ve been considerably less daylight.
Instead, Richardson keeps the chain moving along. He senses the exact moment where the passing window is maximized, then flips a one-handed dart to Olynyk right into his shooting pocket. Olynyk is able to catch it cleanly and toss up the triple in one fluid motion.
The numbers may have dipped for Richardson, but he’s still picking up things on the go. Don’t let your frustration of the “now” blind you. Don’t give up on the guy.
Set Play of the Week
This may shock you, but big men aren’t used to navigating screens. They’re more comfortable in cleanup duty, waiting patiently to challenge shots at the rim if their guards can’t fight over human walls. There are two enemies of a conservative defensive scheme: pull-up artists (hi Steph, Dame, Kemba, and others) and stretch bigs.
Those are the guys that feast on shots your defense is trying to concede. It puts you in a tough spot; do you change your coverage, or put more onus on the perimeter guy to fight over? If you choose the latter against the Heat, you’re then faced with another decision: what happens when they start using Olynyk like a guard?
We know about Olynyk’s work as a ball-handler and sporadic post threat. He can take like-sized slogs off the bounce or abuse minis on the block following switches. What goes a little unnoticed is how the Heat sometimes leverage his shooting off the ball. We normally see Miami go to Flare action out of HORNS, particularly with Tyler Johnson. Against Memphis, the Heat gave us a little twist:
Olynyk and Johnson hook up for what appears to be a routine dribble handoff. That turns out to be a decoy for the real plot: shaking Olynyk free for a triple. After Johnson receives the ball, Olynyk casually trots to the right wing. It looks lazy, but it was purposeful. The deliberate trot gives Adebayo time to sneak behind super rookie Jaren Jackson Jr and wall him off. From there, Olynyk glides into open space. Johnson hits him with a pass, and Olynyk knocks down the open triple.
Jackson Jr. is a fantastic athlete that projects as a versatile defender. If not for that guy in Dallas, he’d probably be the clear-cut Rookie of the Year right now. But even he has his limits. Not only did nobody really call out the pick, he had next to no shot at fighting through Adebayo without picking up a foul.
As simple as the action was, you can’t ask for better execution.