However, the bigger victory for the Heat was the return of Bam Adebayo, who was back in Miami’s line-up for the first time in six weeks following surgery on his right thumb, which he injured against the Denver Nuggets in early December.
The Heat was somehow one of the NBA’s best performers during the stretch Adebayo missed, which included extended absences for Jimmy Butler, as well. Markieff Morris has not yet played since his whiplash injury early in the season in Denver and Victor Oladipo has spent all his time in Miami’s sidelines (albeit with some nice fashion choices).
Despite the challenges, Miami is now 28-16 and in sole possession of the second seed in the Eastern Conference. They are also just .007% back in the standings from the top-seeded Chicago Bulls (27-15), who have been playing without All-Star candidate Zach LaVine recently.
The Heat are now a conference-best 19-8 against teams in the Eastern Conference and 14-5 at the FTX Arena.
Lowry was absent due to personal reasons in what would have potentially been his first game against his former team, but unless new information is revealed, the expectation is he’ll be back in the Heat’s line-up soon.
With that in mind, Adebayo playing once again, and Miami having five of its next six games at home, there’s ground to make up in what’s been a tight Eastern Conference arms race, where the difference between the top-seeded Bulls and sixth-seeded 76ers are only 2.5 games.
While Miami has proven it can be competitive with any opponent regardless who’s playing that night, it’s clear their ceiling is higher when Adebayo is present.
Bam’s stats in his first game back look okay: 14 points, 9 rebounds, 4/12 FG, 6/7 FT, and a +6.
His impact, nonetheless, was felt beyond the stat sheet, and glimpses of what he can do once he gets back to complete game shape must be exciting for Heat fans.
Here’s a breakdown of five plays where Adebayo’s presence provides strength for the Heat:
Ah, the classic. No one must be happier about Bam’s return than Duncan Robinson. The two run beautiful symmetry on dribble-hand-off plays Erik Spoelstra uses to get his $90M man open. Adebayo is his best mate because of the size he takes up and space he creates as a long-limbed screener.
The Heat are in transition with Adebayo as the ball-handler. Fred VanVleet is stuck on the other side of the court in between Robinson and Tyler Herro, both decent long-range snipers. FVV is chasing Duncan, but pointing at him, which means he’s calling to a teammate to cover Robinson before he gets open.
No Raptor teammate of VanVleet immediately gets there because the other eight eyes are focused on Adebayo, who at 6-foot-9 could potentially bulldoze his way to the rim for a lay-up.
Adebayo stops and backpedals on the dribble. FVV commits to Herro, who at this point has played a superb game. Robinson cuts to the rim, doesn’t receive a pass, but curls to the other corner. Boucher realizes what he’s trying to do but is a step late, then gets further slowed down by Adebayo’s screen.
Precious Achiuwa, a former member of the Miami Heat, should know better than to play off Robinson coming off a screen and launching from 3. Achiuwa, whose initial cover is Adebayo, was touted as an athletic perimeter defender coming out of Memphis (NCAA), but takes only a half-hearted half step as a contest. That, or Duncan’s launch is too quick for him to process in his thinking.
(Bonus: if you track Butler on this play, you’ll notice there was a moment he was wide open under the rim, but Adebayo opted to pass to Robinson. It’s one of the many quirks in Spoelstra’s playbook he uses to get his players multiple possible options on the offensive end).
On this play Adebayo finds himself on a switch against VanVleet, who at this point of the contest has shown the Heat he can hit 3-pointers from nearly 30-feet away.
Because Bam stays low in a crouched position and his arms are spread wide, he manages to stay at pace with FVV, who at first tries to shake him loose for the step-back 3-pointer. When that doesn’t work, he attempts to drive left but Adebayo impedes his view at the rim the entire way.
Herro eventually comes for a timely double-team while PJ Tucker puts himself in the perfect position to both bother a potential bounce pass to Boucher or Pascal Siakam behind him. As VanVleet can’t make a decision he begins to leap to avoid going out of bounds. At this point Tucker blocks his view some more, and the baseline is acting as a fourth defender behind him.
The crafty player he is, Fred attempts a last-ditch pass to Boucher that would lead to a dunk, but Adebayo uses his 7-1 wingspan to deflect the ball and cause the steal.
Bam brings the handle down with his off-hand – the left, which he likely worked on while his right thumb was rehabilitating.
Noticing this, Siakam gambles on a steal even while still on his hip, but Bam’s sidestep-dribble prevents that and leaves Pascal in the dust.
At this point it’s an open pathway to the rim. Adebayo gathers the ball the moment he steps inside the 3-point line, then takes another step to launch him for an athletic display of a lay-up. Neither Achiuwa nor Scottie Barnes is quick enough to contest him or even try.
While three Heat players are just crossing half-court, Bam is already battling with Raptors reserve Justin Champagnie for position in the post.
Adebayo has to take a step out, closer to the 3-point line, to cleanly receive Herro’s pass.
Once he settles himself, he goes on triple-threat position: he can dribble, shoot, or pass. Adebayo has proven he can do each of the three. He takes a jab step to the right then power-dribbles left.
The next closest Toronto defender is Barnes, but he’s pre-occupied with a potential Jimmy Butler-Tyler Herro cross-court action in the paint. Herro suddenly backs towards the 3-point line, but Barnes stays in the paint as he notices Adebayo’s drive. So does Siakam.
It doesn’t matter.
Adebayo takes another dribble with his left hand, gets swiped at by Barnes, then completes the and-one basket.
At this point, the context of how the game hung in the balance is important.
The Heat led most of the time beginning in the second quarter, where Miami outscored Toronto by 10.
But the Raptors were unwilling to surrender. There were 22 lead changes and 10 ties in the first 35 minutes. A Heat win puts them closer to the first seed. A Raptors win would keep them only one game back in the loss column for the final non play-in seed.
Miami was leading 91-89. The Raptors just converted on a triple to prevent a 5-point lead from growing to a 3-possession game. The Heat’s offense was grinding to a halt. Whoever would win these next possessions with just a bit over six minutes could dictate how the final minutes go.
The Heat run a sideline inbounds with a triangle: Max Strus is the passer, Jimmy Butler is the receiver in corner, and Adebayo is in his favorited elbow spot. Bam screens for Strus after he passes it to Jimmy. Boucher is able to stay at course with him, so OG Anunoby can remain fronting Bam.
With two respectable shooters – Herro (39% from deep) and Caleb Martin (37%) spreading the floor on the weak side, the paint on the strong side is left open. Bam explodes to the space but is unable to cleanly receive Butler’s pass. There’s a good chance the injury to his right hand affected this, but he also has a history of the occasional butter fingers.
As Adebayo retrieves the leather and re-establishes himself, Siakam dips to the paint, leaving Martin momentarily open, but ready to help on Bam. Adebayo backs down Anunoby, shakes him with a fake spin to the right, turns left instead, and rises up for the jumper.
As high as he leaps, it’s tough to block or contest his shot at the peak of his J. When the shot goes in, it’s like watching butter melt.
Bam should be encouraged to take shots like this. It’s with practice and repetition he builds the confidence to make them, especially when the stakes are at their highest. Given his athletic prowess and size, it could be one of Miami’s go-to options down the stretch of close games, if not the go-to option. If the shot goes in consistently, the Heat would have its ultimate closer.
Just ask Jeff Green:
The game is completely on the line at this point, which once again is a testament to Toronto’s grit despite playing with a rotation of six guys.
The Heat are trying to run a set but the Tucker-Herro off-ball screen ends with PJ on the floor and Herro unable to shake loose of VanVleet. Now, there are only five seconds left on the shot clock.
Herro looks like he will give Butler a screen but the space is tight because it would put Jimmy, a mediocre 3-point shooter, in a precarious situation with the baseline acting as an additional defender. Besides, Herro is pushed away by FVV in what should have been a foul, except this moment was too big to be decided on such a call.
Jimmy rejects the screen and drives left but Barnes, who’s a talented defender for a rookie, doesn’t give him any free space to attack. Gabe Vincent, who admirably filled in for Lowry after not playing last game (coach’s decision), was momentarily shakes free thanks to a Tucker back-pick, but given Siakam’s long reach (he had five steals), such an attempt would have been contested.
With the clock winding down, Butler turns his back on Barnes, spins to the left, and rises for a tough-looking fadeaway.
Adebayo makes it seem like he’s going for the offensive rebound by maneuvering to his right. His defender, Boucher, has his eyes on Butler the entire previous sequence. He darts a look left for half a second thrice, the third being just as Jimmy releases his shot.
Boucher doesn’t notice Bam on his left, so he puts himself in box-out position assuming Adebayo is maneuvering right. Instead, Bam uses his explosiveness to suddenly dart left. The highest leaper in the game, no one stops him from gathering the offensive board in the middle of the paint and giving Miami another possession.
The Heat didn’t score, but managed to melt some more time off the clock and the Raptors’ comeback bid.
From a macro perspective the Heat can be thankful to go 2-1 to the start of this homestand.
Their comeback win against Atlanta was exciting but shined some flaws on their defense.
The loss to Philadelphia was acceptable given how poorly they shot on offense, but displayed how vulnerable they can be when the 3-pointer isn’t falling in.
The win against Toronto was good to secure but their own self-inflicted mistakes prevented what could have been an easy win.
Not having Lowry’s quarterback-like leadership on the court was a factor. It was also encouraging Miami won despite being out-shot by four triples from downtown.
The Heat next go up against Portland, who Miami beat in Oregon during their recent West Coast trip. The Blazers will be better when they visit South Florida given the return of superb scorer CJ McCollum. While the Heat still have the better overall team and advantage in coaching, the game should provide them with a good test, one where the opponent is explosive enough to steal a victory on the road.
Once again, everything Bam Adebayo brings to the table will be more than welcome.