The Heat's plan to get even with the Bucks
Can Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker help get the most out of their teammates, and can the Miami Heat return to the top of the East?
MIAMI — As Miami Heat players walked off the court for the final time last season, team president Pat Riley was already concocting a plan for the summer.
“Somewhere you have to make a decision on the two or three players that you think are your franchise anchors, other players around them who will complement them, and players that will really add a specific fix to what our weaknesses are,” Riley said in a press conference a few days after the Heat were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
In the series, Miami’s defense showed cracks, the offense was ineffective and the team was out-rebounded. Riley pointed to size, defense and character as areas of need.
So on the first day of free agency, Riley picked up the phone and dialed P.J. Tucker, whose Bucks were fresh off winning the NBA Finals. It’s not often that Riley makes a personal appeal to a role player, but he had tried to trade for Tucker during the season and had long thought Tucker would be a perfect fit for “Heat Culture.” Finally, Tucker was a free agent and Miami had a need at power forward.
“It was the perfect situation for me,” said Tucker, who signed a two-year, $15 million with the Heat. “Just perfect timing.”
By the end of the first day of free agency, Riley had signed Tucker and facilitated a sign-and-trade to land Kyle Lowry, perhaps the biggest offseason addition in the league. The Heat hope the two additions, and internal improvement, will even the playing field when they open the season against the Bucks Thursday.
Less than a calendar year after making the Finals, the Heat looked disjointed when they were swept by Milwaukee in May. Far from the team whose continuity and belief helped them become the surprise of the 2020 bubble.
So Riley, GM Andy Elisburg and coach Erik Spoelstra sought this summer to add players who not only could fill positions of need, but also bring their own spin to Miami’s culture.
Both Lowry and Tucker had a sense that when teams could begin reaching out to free agents on August 2, Riley would be calling. Tucker’s decision came down to returning to Milwaukee or relocating to Miami.
“I knew Miami was gonna come,” Tucker told me. “We just had to wait for the date and to actually talk to Coach Riley, and after talking with him it was a wrap.”
Months before agreeing to sign in Miami, Lowry had been the Heat’s top target at the trade deadline but a deal never materialized because of Riley’s refusal to include one of the team’s top youngsters — Tyler Herro or Duncan Robinson. In August, the Heat landed the free-agent Lowry in exchange for Goran Dragic and second-year big man Precious Achiuwa.
Had the Heat decided to meet Toronto’s steep asking price before March 25’s trade deadline, they might not have been swept by the Bucks in the first round.
The Bucks bludgeoned Miami by running its weaker perimeter defenders -- Dragic, Kendrick Nunn, Robinson, Herro -- through screens and forcing them to defend one of Jrue Holiday or Khris Middleton. Because the Heat no longer had Jae Crowder, Giannis Antetokounmpo feasted whenever defended by a smaller forward such as Trevor Ariza, Jimmy Butler or Andre Iguodala. When Bam Adebayo was put on Giannis, Brook Lopez was left to gobble up boards and putbacks.
Upsizing with lineups featuring Adebayo and another big man such as Dewayne Dedmon or Nemanja Bjelica would have left them vulnerable to Holiday and Middleton hunting those mismatches or, gulp, Bryn Forbes scorching from deep. Downsizing only put more of Miami’s limited guards -- and more soft spots for the Bucks to poke at -- on the floor. There wasn’t a good answer. Hence the sweep.
Lowry would have given Miami an answer to the latter problem. At 35, he’s not as spry a defender as he was in his prime, but he’s still very effective. He fights over screens and is strong enough to hold his own when switched onto bigger players.
Now with Lowry in and Dragic and Nunn out, the Heat can ensure that only one of their weaker perimeter defender (Robinson or Herro) is on the floor against hunting teams like Milwaukee.
Offensively, Lowry is more of an improvement on Dragic than the box score would suggest. His release on 3-pointers is quicker than Dragic’s, he’s one of the best bang-bang decision-makers in the league and is a brick wall screener.
All of that adds up to a more dynamic, less predictable offense that puts pressure on a defense.
The Bucks won the Finals because their three stars are two-way players who can all play-make on offense and disrupt on defense. After Butler helped convince Lowry to sign in Miami, the Heat can now mimic that formula.
Throw Tucker into the mix -- a true power forward who can credibly defend the likes of Giannis and Kevin Durant, and has hit nearly 39% of his corner 3s over the past five seasons -- and the Heat filled two major positions of need while also adding championship experience. Besides Udonis Haslem, Lowry and Tucker are the only players in Miami’s locker room who own a championship ring.
“A tough mentality. Physicality. Know-how. It’s little things like that,” is how Tucker defines Championship Experience. “You add it to young guys like Tyler and Duncan that are rising, young, great skills but just learning how to be around guys that lock in every single day in practice, lock in on little details to be able to go from being good to being a great player. That’s the thing that guys like me and Kyle bring to teams.”
By refusing to trade for Lowry back in March, the Heat kept Herro, who was one of the young players Toronto was asking for in a trade-deadline deal. Lowry and Tucker, along with Butler and Adebayo, put Miami in the title conversation. But for the Heat to reach their ceiling, it will come down to Herro bouncing back from a down sophomore season and realizing his potential as a go-to shot creator.
Everyone in Miami, including Herro, knows this. After averaging 16 points on 43% shooting as a rookie in the bubble, Herro struggled against the Bucks in last year’s playoffs and averaged 9.3 points on 31.6% shooting.
So in his first extended summer since entering the league, the 21-year-old connected with skills coach Drew Hanlen, who counts All-Star scorers Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine on his list of clients. During two-a-day sessions in either Los Angeles or Miami, Hanlen worked with Herro to tighten his jumper and improve his footwork and handle.
"We really wanted to rewire the way he moved so he could become more shifty and harder to guard,” Hanlen said in an email.
This work has been apparent early on. Herro, who also added 10 pounds of muscle, was the team’s leading scorer in the preseason. After taking 53 setback jumpers in 54 games last season, Herro attempted 12 in his first four preseason games, according to InStat data. A sign of his improved shiftiness.
“You might see that a little bit more,” he offered after a recent shootaround.
Worse than Herro in the first-round exit was Butler, who shot just 29.7% after an all-time postseason performance in the bubble the year before. Two months between the 2020 bubble and the start of the 2020-21 season didn’t allow for much recovery time, and Butler’s body broke down as the season went on.
“I was banged up a lot of last season and at the end of last season,” Butler told GQ. “But I’m healthy now and my mind is right.”
Five months off — closer to the typical break — will help Butler. As for the other incumbents: Adebayo and Robinson played better than Herro and Butler against Milwaukee but both fell short of their regular-season numbers. Adebayo has vowed to search out his own shot more, and Robinson spent time after a recent practice picking the brain of Ray Allen, who knows a thing or two about paying off an All-Star trio.
All will be utilized in Spoelstra’s system, an evolving weave of motions and reads. Lowry will help the team play faster than last season’s second-slowest pace.
Spoelstra, a football junky, has incorporated the hoops equivalent of the run-pass option. Dribble handoffs or kick-ahead pistol actions act as the “snap” and initiate Miami’s series of off-ball movements.
Here against the Rockets, Lowry receives the handoff from Adebayo, who sets a screen and rolls to the basket. This is Lowry’s first option. Meanwhile, Butler is parked in the corner as the second option. Lowry is reading Butler’s defender, Danuel House, the way Lamar Jackson reads a defensive end before deciding whether to keep the ball or pitch it. When House steps into the paint to help, Lowry whips the ball to Butler in the corner.
“He can be effective with his passing, with his defense, with his scoring,” Spoelstra said of Lowry. “All of these things are what make him such a great quarterback.”
On defense, Spoelstra won’t have to resort to gimmicks (read: zone) with Lowry and Tucker forming with Butler and Adebayo a fearsome foursome that can guard multiple positions. (The Heat did not play zone once during the preseason.)
Miami projects to be better, but not favorites in the East. The Bucks and Brooklyn Nets loom. Miami’s depth — which will rely on journeymen Dewayne Dedmon and Markieff Morris and unproven players Max Strus and Gabe Vincent — will be tested. The Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks have more complete rosters and young stars intent on making championship leaps.
In the preseason, the Heat looked strong. The ball whipped around, the defense had moments of dominance and those in and around the organization spoke in glowing terms of the team assembled. But that’s the preseason. As Tucker says, time will tell if the Heat’s revamped identity is strong enough to help them climb out of the East.
“That’s something that’s built,” Tucker said. “You can’t go off preseason, you can’t go off camp, you can’t go off any of that shit. You gotta start playing games, winning games, losing games. All the stuff is built over every emotion that you go through over the course of the season.”
Thursday’s rematch is an appropriate start.
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