Michael Malone is generally the type of trainer who will give a negative Yelp review after vacationing at Shangri-La. But his worries were justified this time.
On Saturday, the day before Game 2 of the NBA finals, Malone lamented his team’s poor defense in game one of the series against the Miami Heat. The Denver Nuggets had seen the Heat see plenty of wide-open 3-pointers – a bad sign, said Malone, even though good shooters like Max Strus and Duncan Robinson continued to miss out and Denver won games.
On Sunday, Strus and Robinson combined for six of Miami’s 17 3-pointers. On a night when the Heat looked unchallenged, their 3-point shot helped them steal the win on the road to tie the series at one game apiece. Fittingly enough, they won by 3 points: 111-108.
“There was a miscommunication, a game plan breakdown, a personnel breakdown,” Malone grumbled afterward. He added: “We got lucky in Game 1. Tonight, they nailed it.”
The Heat have frustrated all of their playoff opponents this year by hitting jump shots they missed during the regular season. Most teams over the past decade have focused on earning points from the most efficient shots: 3-pointers, free throws, and shots at the basket. Miami has jumped on that trend to some extent, but it is one of the worst 3 point shooter teams during the regular season and are more likely to score points – led by Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo – with more focus on the middleweight basket.
That is most likely a strategy that failed against Denver, the offensive juggernaut. The Heat could not match the playmaking of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon. For the Heat to win, they need to stay hot from 3 points away.
On Sunday, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said the Heat were “more intentional” in their offense, suggesting the plan was to lean into their 3-point shooting.
“That doesn’t guarantee anything either,” Spoelstra said. “But at least you gave yourself the best chance.”
The Heat have capitalized on their chances this postseason, demonstrated by their improbable run to the NBA finals as the No. 1 seed. Kevin Love, who joined the Heat mid-season, said he was not aware of the team’s 3-point run until he came to Miami.
“I always felt there was something to close the door to the regular season,” said Love, adding: “You can reset. And I think the guys feel it. They just have another level of confidence and understanding that if we go out there and be ourselves and play free and play smooth, we’re going to give ourselves a chance to win..”
During the regular season, Miami is ranked third in the shot taken 10 to 14 feet from the basket, and 10th for a shot between five and nine feet. That’s not to say the Heat didn’t shoot enough 3 seconds: They were 10th attempts per game. They just don’t make it.
In the second quarter on Sunday night, the Nuggets led by as many as 15 points. The game is about to explode. But Love, who has not played in the last three games, hit a wallop for Miami to keep the Nuggets in sight. Miami shot 8 for 17 from 3 points in the first half – which helped the Heat stay within 6 points of Denver in the first half.
The Heat continued to bomb 3 seconds and tied the game relatively early in the third quarter. Denver still led going into the fourth quarter, but the 3 helped the Heat keep the game within reach, allowing for a comeback.
In the final quarter, it was Robinson’s turn. His two 3s in the opening minutes cut the Nuggets lead to 2. Miami’s most recent win was their seventh of the postseason after trailing at least 10 points. It matched the 2022 Golden State Warriors and the 2011 and 2012 Heat for the most double-digit comebacks in a single postseason in the last 25 years.
While the Heat had some strong shooters, they didn’t include the team’s best players, Butler and Adebayo. Additionally, guard Tyler Herro, one of the team’s best shooters, missed nearly the entire playoffs with a right hand injury.
Miami’s offense often centered on Adebayo grabbing the ball at the elbow and using his passing skills or Butler driving the baseline and using fake shots and power to create space for himself.
In the playoffs, Miami flipped a switch. Suddenly, his 3-pointers started falling at an elite clip. Going into Game 2, the Heat were the best 3-point shooter team in the world playoffs by 38.7 percent. In the Eastern Conference final against the Boston Celtics, the Heat shot 43.4 percent of 3 over seven games.
Asked if he knew why the Heat had suddenly stepped up their shooting, Cody Zeller, Miami’s reserve center, said he thought the regular season was “inaccurate.”
“The playoffs are more accurate as far as how good our people shooters are,” said Zeller. “We’re not surprised by people taking shots in the playoffs. We were more surprised by not taking shots during the regular season.”
The 3-pointer, which the team has relied on more than ever, is a high variance shot. The offense can create many open displays, but players still shoot the ball into the hoop 10 feet off the ground. You’re more likely to miss than make. But if a team runs hot in a few games, it doesn’t really matter what the other team does defensively. The Celtics saw that, and so did the Nuggets in Game 2.
The Nuggets have more offensive firepower than the Heat. For the Heat to keep up, they need to keep shooting 3 seconds more.
“In terms of shooters, it’s pretty simple: Let it fly. power on. As soon as they see two go down, it can be three, it can turn into six, just like that,” Spoelstra said Saturday, snapping his fingers.
In the regular season, the ideal tactic to defend the Heat is to focus on Butler and Adebayo and tear the midfield apart, forcing the ball to the perimeter. After all, during the regular season, the Heat shoot 34.3 percent — low score — of 3 shots is considered open, according to NBA statistics. No NBA defense can take everything away from an opponent’s attack.
The general strategy is to push the team towards what they are not good at. The Celtics did just that, and Miami is making them pay well by 42.1 percent on an open three-pointer.
The temptation when a team goes cold on their deep shots is to focus more on getting shots near the rim. In Game 2, the Heat rarely attacked, only shooting 10 times in restricted area.
Miami came home tied, 1-1. Once again, the Heat won a playoff game they weren’t expected to win with a shot they weren’t expected to hit.
“That’s the game,” said Butler. “Make it or miss the game. Make or miss a league. We made several shots. They didn’t.