It was the start of the fourth quarter between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs Saturday evening inside FTX Arena in Miami, Fla. The Heat possessed a two-point advantage — 99-97 — courtesy of Bam Adebayo’s 21-foot mid-range buzzer-beater to end the third.
He had 20 points heading into the final period, posting 10 in the third quarter alone. With Butler on the bench — who evidently sat the entire fourth quarter due to soreness, something he and head coach Erik Spoelstra both acknowledged postgame — Adebayo was on the floor with guards Gabe Vincent, Kyle Lowry and Tyler Herro, as well as wing Caleb Martin.
San Antonio countered with a downsized lineup of its own, featuring 6-foot-8 Keita Bates-Diop manning the 5 with Jock Landale and Zach Collins on the bench and (underrated) rim protector Jakob Poeltl (back) out.
To put it lightly: Miami’s 6-foot-9 stalwart exploited it; he vizualized the Spurs as “lunch meat” and did everything but play with his food.
On Miami’s first trip down the floor, he was fouled by Lonnie Walker on the rebound after Vincent’s 3-point attempt — rewarding Miami another crack to widen its slim lead.
Lowry caught Vincent’s pass at the left wing with less than 10 seconds remaining on the shot-timer. Bates-Diop attempted to three-quarter front Adebayo as he neared the left block. Lowry and Adebayo — on the same page — reacted with a counter. Lowry pump-faked the initial pass and rifled a feed to Adebayo on the backdoor cut, who out-leveraged an outstretched Doug McDermott for the easy finish.
Two possessions later, Adebayo received the post touch — this time on a BLOB entry. Lowry subsequently evacuated the premises upon the entry pass, eliminating any strong side help and leaving Adebayo on an island against Bates-Diop.
And, once again — he didn’t play with his food.
He faced up against the inferior — albeit good, but not good enough — defender in Bates-Diop, who didn’t necessarily shading him one direction or another. Adebayo jab stepped, ripped through to his more comfortable hand, absorbed the contact and concluded the possession with a tough right-handed scoop finish.
Logging yet another post touch a possession later, Adebayo was in a somewhat similar situation against Bates-Diop — isolated in the mid-post on the left side of the floor.
Immediately after the catch, the 24-year-old faced up on Bates-Diop yet again. This time, he recognized Devin Vassell — who’s simultaneously distracted with Herro attempting to set a pin-in screen on Joshua Primo to for an open Vincent corner look — on the weak side.
Adebayo ripped through Bates Diop’s right hand, securing leverage and blowing by him. Vassell hesitated to help, thus opening up a wide two-handed slam for Adebayo — prompting a Spurs timeout.
To add necessary size and length, legendary Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich subbed-in the 6-foot-11 Landale, except it didn’t matter. Adebayo, then up to 26 points, finished over him on the pick-and-roll. Maintaining that same attacking mindset, Adebayo soon followed suit with an and-1, powering through Vassell in transition.
It was evident: Not a single soul rostered on San Antonio could hang with Miami’s 24-year-old star. He was pulverizing mismatches, attacking any visible crease and simply shredding an already shorthanded Spurs’ frontcourt.
Adebayo looked to be having fun, and more importantly, he was playing aggressively — dominating in every way imaginable. He ultimately finished with 36 points on 68.5 percent true shooting, in addition to seven rebounds, four assists, two steals and three blocks (or two blocks, if you ask Butler).
Many — fans (including myself), teammates, head coach Erik Spoelstra and even Adebayo himself — have clamored for a more aggressive version of himself for multiple seasons.
We’re slowly entering the “ask, and you shall receive” territory in that regard.
The budding big man is in the midst of arguably the most offensively aggressive stretch of his career. In February — an 11-game sample — Adebayo averaged 22.0 points on 15.0 field goal attempts per game, the two-highest single-month marks of his career; in his 26 prior performances, he posted 17.6 points on just 12.8 field goal tries.
He’s only attempted 19 or more field goals in a single game 10 times in his career — four of them came in February, tying a career high of 21 attempts thrice.
Per Stathead, Adebayo has yet to record a previous 11-game stretch with more shot attempts per game in his career. He previously had one 13-game sample (three overlapping 11-game samples) ranging from Jan. 16 to Feb. 7, 2021, where he averaged 14.5 attempts per game, though the key difference over that stretch was who was around him.
Lowry was in
Toronto Tampa with the Raptors while Herro and Butler both missed at least seven of the 13 games over that span. Adebayo had to huck them just to keep the Heat competitive in those games. Now, that’s not necessarily the case. Yes, Herro missed four of the team’s 11 February contests, but Butler and Lowry have combined to miss just two. That matters.
During this torrid stretch, Adebayo’s (slightly) reformed his shot diet, too.
He’s getting to the paint with more ferocity and intent, attempting 49.7 percent of his shots at the rim (72 FG%) and 33.9 percent of them on short 2s (51.8 FG%), per PBP stats. In the 26 games prior, he was taking just 43.1 percent of his attempts at the rim (71.5 FG%) and 40.4 percent (33.3 FG%) from the short mid-range area. He also sported a 61.7 true shooting percentage in the month of February compared to the 57.1 percent mark beforehand, albeit the small sample within the former.
I'm assuming this is the aggressive Bam Adebayo some are looking for. pic.twitter.com/7ukBX5wceG— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) February 16, 2022
We know Adebayo’s remarkable versatility, acumen and sheer skill-level defensively — both on- and off-the-ball. I won’t belabor those talking points, even though he’s (somehow) taken a leap in that department as well as one of the best defenders in the league:
I mean come on — that’s not normal.
But right now, his aggressive mindset offensively is arguably as important for his individual — and team — success.
Has his shot attempts always correlated to wins? No. In fact, the Heat’s gone 3-7 in games he’s shot 19 or more times. But, again, that was in-part because of the lesser supporting cast surrounding him in most of those games.
While Miami’s slowly, but surely getting healthy again, it’s worth mentioning that it went 9-2 in the month of February, not in-spite of Adebayo’s aggressiveness — but because of it.
In February, when he was on the floor, the team featured a plus-18.4 NET Rating; when he was off, it sunk to a minus-10.5. That’s nearly a 29 point per 100 possession difference. The offense also scored 12.1 more points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor compared to when he wasn’t, a significant difference that also bears mentioning.
While those don’t tell the entire story, it still amounts to something — especially his impact offensively with an increased load.
In last year’s playoffs, Adebayo attempted 15 or fewer shots around him in three of the four games (he had 17 in Game 4), and the majority of his games this season have fallen in that same threshold, too, but at a lower rate. Adebayo’s had 12 games with 16 or more shots this season — he had 13 all of 2020-21— while missing a sizable chunk in 2021-22 due to various injuries as well.
There’s still room to develop, of course. But it’s absolutely a step in the right direction.
If you choose to, it’s more than fair to attribute (some of) his uptick in shot attempts to Lowry’s presence; there’s been less of a burden on Adebayo to create for others and more space — figuratively and literally — to self-create at the elbows and in the mid-to-high post. Heck, in the majority of the sequences above, who found Adebayo? Lowry. While some of those might be designed plays, Adebayo’s been more apt to immediately hunt shots off the catch with Lowry on the floor:
Bam Adebayo with Lowry on/off the court (per PBP Stats)
*PTS and FG2A are per 100 possessions
“If anything, Kyle’s telling [Bam] to be even more aggressive,” Butler said after Saturday’s game when asked about Lowry’s impact on Adebayo’s scoring. “And that’s with him aggressive now, and Kyle’s still like, ‘More. More. More.’ But that’s just who Kyle is.
“When he sees the potential in somebody, he’s hyping everybody to do that every single possession, putting you in position to be great whether it’s scoring the ball, or he knows what the defense is going to do so you can be able to skip it to [P.J. Tucker] in the corner — Kyle’s always three, four, five plays ahead. So whenever you got a PG like that that’s constantly putting a battery in your back and hyping you up — man, it’s easy to play basketball.”
Spoelstra echoed a similar sentiment, glossing over Lowry’s ability to process the game and how that’s helped expedite Adebayo’s processing, thus allowing him to be more aggressive depending on the encountered circumstance.
“What Kyle has brought to Bam is a higher level of processing,” he said. “Bam is so unique in his skillset is that he’s a point center to us. He’s really learning to read so much more context of the game: Matchups, flow, who’s going (where), what’s necessary for that possession — and that’s not the easy decision that everybody thinks it is. He’s really making incredible strides in that reading and can’t have a better person to learn from — a hall of fame point guard.
“(Bam is) a future hall-of-fame center that’s making point guard reads,” Spoelstra added. “That’s what’s required for us.”
While some might associate the “point guard” reads to just playmaking — there’s more to it. Aside from his sheer athleticism, if there’s one thing we know about Adebayo — it’s that he’s an excellent playmaker. Though his assists (3.6 apg) are down from what they were the last two years (5.3 apg), this year’s mark is not reflective of his playmaking ability, but the choice of playmaking versus hunting his own shot without the same playmaking burden in years past.
Like a point guard, Adebayo’s thinking, seeing and attacking the game at a significantly higher level than any of us could ever wish to. His ferocious mindset is creating advantageous situations for himself and will eventually for his teammates as well; Adebayo’s aggression will bend defenses that will open various alleys for his playmaking to flourish.
This is a semi-subtle, yet very important midseason leap that’s crucial for this Heat team.
When we did the rountable last week, one of the things I cited for what “needs to happen” in order for Miami to get back to the NBA Finals was for Adebayo to remain aggressive. The Heat, who are first place in the Eastern Conference at 41-21, are logjammed a chaotic seeding battle where there’s a 5.5-game difference between them and the sixth-seed.
With the Heat, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, Brooklyn Nets and reigning-champion Milwaukee Bucks as the presumptive top-eight in the East (not in that order), Miami’s going to need to be at their best if it has aspirations at making the Eastern Conference Finals, let alone the NBA Finals.
It’s simple: Being at their best includes a healthy and aggressive Adebayo, among other things. These aggressive stretches are encouraging signs for what’s to come as Miami gets more healthy (knock on wood they remain healthy).
Prolonged spans of this caliber of play puts Miami over the top. The more he exploits bigs sitting in the paint, takes advantage of mismatches and hounds various opportunities to showcase his smooth jumper — the better, not just for him, but for everyone else (except the opponent) involved.
We all saw the worst version of Adebayo in last year’s playoffs, mere months after taking a leap in the 2020 playoffs when he was healthy. His current play supersedes that of his 2020 playoff self, but his mindset will have to be more of the “Game 6 versus Boston” variety as opposed to the “1st round versus Milwaukee” type for Miami to make a deep run.
Adebayo has #NoCeiling, so if he keeps the pedal to the metal, there’s no telling to what numbers he might put up. We can’t project that right now. All we know is that he appears to have taken yet another midseason leap of aggression — which will completely change this Heat team’s ceiling if it sustains.
What do you think about his recent aggressiveness? Comment below!