One of the biggest stories of the Miami Heat’s second-round victory over the Philadelphia 76ers was the defense that center Bam Adebayo played on Joel Embiid, as well as the team’s overall gameplan schemed up by Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra to shut down Philly as the series took its course.
Spoelstra highlighted after Game 6 that this series intermixed “three or four” mini series jumbled up into one.
“It certainly played that way,” he said. “There were definitely different complextions to each game. Injuries, on both sides, were a factor. But we were able to stay a course and get a tough win.”
Embiid missed the first two games of the series due to an orbital fracture in his right eye plus dealing with a fractured finger on his shooting hand. Games 3 and 4 featured Philadelphia’s most productive offense while Spoelstra and Co.’s adjustments reaped benefits for the final two games of the series.
Here’s the game-by-game offensive productivity from Philly (as a team) in the series, per Cleaning The Glass:
Sixers offense v. Heat
|GAME||PTS PER 100 POSS.||PERCENTILE|
|GAME||PTS PER 100 POSS.||PERCENTILE|
Big discrepency in offense in Games 5 and 6, huh?
Well, those aforementioned adjustments were centered on one thing: Adebayo playing the drop on ball-screens involving Embiid without peel/soft switching, thus keeping Adebayo on Embiid as opposed to getting switched onto a different matchup on the perimeter.
Low and behold, it worked. Over the final two games, Embiid converted on just six of his 20 field goal attempts — a 30 percent clip — while getting rejected twice with Adebayo as his primary defender, per NBA.com’s tracking data. In the series, Adebayo held Embiid to 11-of-29 (37.9 FG%) shooting, including 0-of-5 from distance, when he was the primary defender.
There was some indecision with Bam’s reps in the drop. For instance, here’s a rep he had in Game 6:
In this single rep, he appears to be hesitant on whether to contain the speedy Tyrese Maxey or shift back to the burling Embiid. He evidently chooses the latter, leaving an open alley for Maxey to truck down hill, though he doesn’t convert and Miami walks away unscathed.
That said, far more often, as usual with Adebayo, there was way more good than bad with his defensive play across the final two games.
Adebayo’s foot speed and instincts allow him to be arguably the league’s most versatile defender on a consistent basis; he can virtually play any coverage Spoelstra asks him to with a level of competitiveness that you can’t teach.
I mean, come on.
In addition to playing drop, Adebayo’s masterful fronting of Embiid prompted a bevy of unforced turnovers and difficult catches. The combination of athleticism, length and sheer physicality made a compromised Embiid work every single possession.
In the first two clips, Adebayo denies Embiid on a pair of post entries, forcing two errant passes — the former resulting in a 3-point basket on the other end. In the third clip, Embiid flashes to the ball, but catches it more than 20 feet away from the basket. He’s also to flow into a free-throw line jumper — albeit contested — that clanked out.
Adebayo doesn’t begin fronting in the fourth-and-final clip because there’s no weakside help. Embiid relocates and eventually catches it in the mid-post, but Strus momentarily doubles off Tobias Harris to force the rock out of Embiid’s hands. The plan works to perfection, as Harris evidently missed the semi-open wing triple.
Good process from Miami.
There were a few instances where the gritty 37-year-old P.J. Tucker switched onto Embiid and Miami still fashioned good results.
In 35.2 partial possessions, Tucker held Embiid to six points on 1-of-5 shooting. When neither was on the 7-foot monster, backup-5 Dewayne Dedmon was. And he held his own, limiting Embiid to 7-of-16 shooting and 23 points on 45.3 partial possessions.
Miami possesses multi-positional defenders across the majority of its playoff rotation, but Tucker and Adebayo’s versatility to defend 1-5 unlocks an abundance of coverages and looks to throw at the opposition. And that’s what they’ve done with fruitful results.
Through two rounds, the Heat have specifically been one of the league’s best defensive teams in the half-court, holding teams to 88.9 points per 100 plays — or a shade under 0.9 points per play in the halfcourt — which ranks third, per Cleaning The Glass. They are the best remaining defensive team (104.6 DRTG) and force turnovers at a 14.2 percent clip with tenacious pressure and help on the back-line.
Can they keep it up?
The Eastern Conference Finals will be no easy task, but it was also feature a different look for the Heat compared to their other two playoff series.
Boston has two very good (shot-creation) wings in three-time All-Star Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who’s had his share of success against Miami this season. Marcus Smart has also blossomed as the offense’s primary creator and is surrounded by capable shooters in Grant Williams, Payton Pritchard and Al Horford.
To combat this, Miami will likely revert back to its switch-heavy defensive scheme. But, again, they also possess the versatility to drop, blitz, hedge, play zone and press and will adjust on the fly to mix up different looks.
Both Miami and Boston — two of the most switch-heavy teams in the league — love to flatten downhill attacks with their personnel. This series will feature a ton of that. That’s why Adebayo’s presence — and versatility — is so important.
Having a good, non-scheme-dependent center is the back bone to quality team defense more often than not — and Adebayo is one of the best defensive players in the NBA. This will be a very physical series with little open gaps to attack at each turn. If Miami’s able to repeatedly generate stops while knocking down shots on the other end, they will likely be punching their ticket to their seventh-ever NBA Finals.
But both must occur, not just one. And the former will be spearheaded by Adebayo, Tucker and Butler — like it has all season.