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Despite loss to Rockets, optimism remains that Heat will improve as the playoffs approach

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The Heat hit a rough patch in the last few games: it’ll only make them stronger as communication between players improve.

Miami Heat v Houston Rockets Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Miami Heat started their game with an early double-digit lead against the Houston Rockets, but wilted in the stretch and lost a clutch game they normally won over the last couple of weeks. The trio of Clint Capela, James Harden, and Chris Paul now stand undefeated at 18-0. Which three-man Heat lineup did the best and the worst in this game against the Rockets? The results, as sorted by DefRtg, defy logic.

Versus Houston Rockets

3-MAN LINEUPS MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg PIE
3-MAN LINEUPS MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg PIE
D.Walton Jr., K.Olynyk J.Richardson 4 100.0 50.8 49.2 150.0
D.Walton Jr., B.Adebayo, J.Richardson 4 100.0 50.8 49.2 150.0
D.Walton Jr., B.Adebayo, K.Olynyk 7 62.8 59.2 3.6 75.0
D.Walton Jr., B.Adebayo, J.Winslow 7 62.8 59.2 3.6 75.0
J.Winslow, H.Whiteside, J.Johnson 9 97.5 156.7 -59.2 20.6
J.Winslow, H.Whiteside, D.Jones Jr. 4 93.2 161.3 -68.1 -46.2
J.Winslow, H.Whiteside, D.Walton Jr. 4 87.5 171.4 -83.9 27.9
J.Winslow, J.Johnson, D.Jones Jr. 3 110.3 231.5 -121.2 -9.5

The top-4 defensive units, only for this one game with over 2 minutes on the court together, all include Derrick Walton Jr., and bottom-4 trios all include Justise Winslow. On an individual basis Walton Jr. should not be in the top tier, nor should Winslow be in the bottom tier. One factor could be Walton Jr. was generally matched against bench players, while Winslow got heavy minutes against the starters.

A second factor implies that in some cases threesomes played better, or worse, than the sum of their parts. Bam Adebayo and Walton Jr. especially seemed to connect on spacing the floor on defense and not leaving gaps in coverage. And both of them are rookies.

Unaccountably Hassan Whiteside and Winslow didn’t click together defensively for that one game, even though individually, over the course of the season, they’re elite defenders. Perhaps they overlap coverage on some spots on the floor and leave others uncovered.

Whiteside’s last turnover shows how poor spacing causes problems even for an elite rebounder like him. Here, two Rockets defenders outsmart four Heat players in the paint to get the basketball.

Whiteside clearly made a mistake once he snagged the ball, but the need for 3 other Heat players chasing a potential rebound in the paint, when Hassan is there, remains a mystery. Derrick Jones Jr. did a great job contesting the shot and running back to cover Harden, while the dangerous Paul was left unguarded after the miss to catch the ball and restart the offense. Still, having four Heat players practically breathing on each other’s neck could have caused confusion among them in such a tight space. This contrasts sharply with the excellent room the Rockets players had to operate on that sequence.

In a previous play, James Johnson and Josh Richardson put Whiteside in a no-win situation against one of the NBA’s all-time leaders in steals, Chris Paul.

Johnson feeds a pass to Hassan with Paul close by: a recipe for disaster. Next Richardson cuts baseline sending Paul right into Whiteside. Instead of running outside to create room for Whiteside to operate 1-on-1 in the post, Josh made Hassan go 1-on-2 against a center and a smart point guard. What was Richardson thinking?

The reason for optimism comes from the Miami Heat being able to straighten out the spacing and communication issues among themselves in the second half of the season. They showed lots of poise in most clutch games this season, so these couple of examples are exceptions to Miami’s recent successes.

The table above shows how teamwork means much more than individual stats in winning games. In a perfect world all the combos will work together in unison as Miami marches to the playoffs.