The Miami Heat are one win away from becoming the first 8-seed to reach the NBA conference finals since the 1998-99 New York Knicks. But what’s their secret? How have the Heat gone from a team on the brink of elimination in the play-in tournament to the team with the best record in the playoffs?
One big play from the Heat’s 109-101 win over the Knicks in Game 4 Monday perfectly encapsulates the key to Miami’s postseason run.
The Knicks were trying to stage a late-game comeback, down seven points with just over three minutes left. Their All-Star forward, Julius Randle, blew past Bam Adebayo and drove toward the rim looking to cut the lead to five, or even four if he could make the basket and draw a foul. But instead of an open lane, Randle found Max Strus. The undrafted Heat forward anticipated Randle’s path, rotated over to help, and took a vicious charge in the middle of the paint.
It was an offensive foul — Randle’s sixth — and a turnover. Randle’s night was done, and for all intents and purposes, so was the Knicks’. The Heat extended the lead to nine on the ensuing possession and the Knicks didn’t get closer than seven the rest of the game.
Following their only loss of this series, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was asked about his team’s disappointing performance in a postgame news conference. His answer said a lot about Heat culture.
“The deciding factors,” Spoelstra said, were the loose balls the Knicks retrieved down the stretch. “The things that we take pride in — ball in the air, ball on the floor — they pretty much dominated that [in] those last six minutes.”
Ball in the air. Ball on the floor. The Heat take pride in dirty work. They lost Game 2 in New York, when they lost the dirty work battle, but Miami is a stunning 7-2 in the 2023 playoffs in large part because it has made more hustle plays than its opponents. A decade ago this assessment would’ve sounded like an unprovable cliché, but now we have the numbers to back it up.
Back in 2015, the NBA started logging hustle stats. Eight years later, these quirky numbers are giving us a unique glimpse into the definitive element of this team’s unlikely playoff success.
It does the dirty work.
Deflections: 17.7 per game (First out of 16 playoff teams)
An average NBA game this postseason includes about 540 passes, or about 270 for each team. No defense is disrupting that passing better than Miami’s pesky group of stoppers, who are deflecting 17.6 passes per game. Among remaining teams, the Boston Celtics rank a distant second at 14 per game.
Of the 19 players this postseason who have deflected at least 20 passes, four play for Miami. Gabe Vincent is the team leader in the category. The undrafted 26 year-old guard has a nose for lazy passes; he has deflected 30 in 269 minutes played this postseason, or about one every nine minutes. And he’s not alone. Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry both have 22; Adebayo has 21.
All those deflected passes create chaos and opportunity, and in a related story, no team scoops up more loose balls than Miami.
Loose balls recovered: 6.9 per game (First)
For decades, basketball coaches have told their squads that winning the so-called 50-50 balls is a key to victory. Well, the Heat recover more loose balls than any other playoff team (the Milwaukee Bucks, whom the Heat knocked out in the first round, ranked second at 6.4 per game, with the Golden State Warriors a distant third at 5.5). Those recoveries translate to more offensive chances for Miami and fewer chances for their opponents.
Butler has 10 such recoveries, tied for fourth most in the playoffs. Not only is Butler the second-leading scorer among all remaining players in the postseason, averaging 33.5 points per game, he also sets the tone for the dirty work. He makes the highlight plays for this team, but he’s not afraid to hit the ground and wrestle for the 50-50 balls that can determine the outcomes of these games, either.
Julius Randle: Maybe the Heat want it more
Julius Randle voices his thoughts on the Knicks’ loss of confidence after a Game 4 defeat at the hands of the Heat.
Charges drawn: 1.67 per game (First)
Speaking of hitting the ground, Miami’s defenders are also the most likely to take charges in this postseason. Strus’ charge taken down the stretch of Game 4 was the 15th charge taken in nine games by Miami. No other team has taken more than 10 in these playoffs.
The Heat draw 1.67 charges per contest — among remaining teams, Golden State is a distant second at 0.91 per game. They drew three in Game 4, including two on Randle.
Kevin Love took the most influential charge of this postseason, when he stood strong as Giannis Antetokounmpo was racing toward the rim in the first game of the first round. Antetokounmpo got hurt as a result. That moment reshaped the entire postseason. It takes guts to stand pat while players like Randle and Antetokounmpo attack the rim, so it’s telling that three of the seven players who have taken at least three charges this postseason play for Miami: Love, Strus, and Vincent. Only Warriors big man Draymond Green has taken more charges (seven) so far in these playoffs than Vincent and Strus, who have each taken four.
But Miami’s grit extends to the offensive side of the floor as well.
Screen assists: 12.4 per game (First)
What’s a screen assist? It’s when an offensive player sets a screen for a teammate that directly leads to a made field goal by that teammate. No team is doing this more than Miami. The Heat are averaging 12.4 screen assists per game, resulting in 29.4 points per game for the offense.
During the regular season, Miami logged just 9.2 screen assists per game creating 21.3 points, but one reason this team is peaking at the perfect moment is that its bread-and-butter pick actions are much more effective.
It’s no mystery who leads the way here; Bam Adebayo is far and away the most important screener in Miami. Among remaining players, only Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, the two-time MVP, is averaging more screen assists this postseason. But this is another area where Love has emerged as a vital part of Spoelstra’s rotation. He has set 118 screens already in these playoffs, and his 20 screen assists have led to 47 points this postseason.
The Heat have upped their offensive game in the postseason, scoring 117.1 points per 100 possessions, which ranks fourth in the NBA behind only offensive juggernauts Boston, Phoenix and Denver. During the regular season, the Heat ranked 25th in offensive efficiency at 112.3, better than only the Orlando Magic, Houston Rockets, Detroit Pistons, San Antonio Spurs and Charlotte Hornets (all of whom will be hoping the lottery balls bounce their way next week, rather than participating in the playoffs).
At first glance, the biggest reason for that uptick is improved shooting. After ranking 27th in the NBA in 3-point shooting during the regular season, the Heat currently rank third in 3-point percentage in the playoffs. However, that starts with great screens at the point of attack. Only the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers set more screens per 100 possessions than Miami, who also ranks third in points per chance off of pick plays among remaining teams.
At this point in the playoffs, the identities of the remaining contenders are pretty set. The Lakers have an elite defense. The Celtics are a two-way juggernaut. The Suns and Nuggets both have incredible offenses. The Sixers are a slow-paced two-headed monster that can pick apart any defense in the league. The Heat have won seven of their nine playoff games by building their own brand around unmatched grit and toughness. Before they started their first-round series against Milwaukee, Spoelstra summed up their mentality.
“We feel like we’re Navy SEALs,” he said. “Just drop us in the parachutes and let’s go compete.”