So Are the 4-1 Miami Heat For Real?

The Miami Heat never seem to play a close game. Their four wins have all been decisive, none more so than the 137-95 thrashing they gave the Milwaukee Bucks in their opener on October 21. The double-digit loss on their record may look on the surface like they got smacked around, but that Pacers game went to overtime.

Coming into the Charlotte game, the Heat held a plus-14.8 Net Rating, second behind only the red-hot Utah Jazz (plus-18.2 after demolishing Houston to go to 4-0 on Thursday night.) Miami brought a 92.3 Defensive Rating into the contest. After a 114-99 win that featured a Defensive Rating around 93 (based on some on-a-napkin math with the box score), they will no doubt retain that best-in-the-league defensive mark.

This Miami team made the NBA Finals in 2020. They might be even better in 2022.

What’s curious about Miami is their reversal of emphasis. Coming into the Charlotte game, Miami stood 15th in Offensive Rating at 107.3 and it looks like that number won’t move much after Friday’s action. In 2020, Miami was 7th on offense and 11th defensively. Last year, they were 18th on offense and 7th on defense in going 42-30.

This year’s team continues that shift in emphasis to the defensive side of the ball and turns it up to 11.

And the offense has a lot of room to grow. The team brought a 30.6 percent shooting mark from 3-point land into Friday and shot just 9-of-35 (25.7 percent) against Charlotte. There’s no way they can be this bad for long.

What Miami does do exceptionally well is shoot free throws. They were fifth in the league at 81.1 percent before tipoff and went 19-of-19 from the line against the Hornets.

Of course, holding the opponents’ eFG% down plays a big role in winning basketball. Before Friday, Miami’s opposing eFG% was a microscopic .462. Charlotte posted a .461 mark in the loss.

The Heat have a strong identity. Their offense runs through three separate vectors that each complement the other two’s roles. Tyler Herro has 21.0 points per game as the deep threat, and he’s doing that even despite shooting poorly (31.0 percent) from 3-point land. Jimmy Butler has 23.3 points per game, doing most of his damage in the short midrange (55 percent of his shots are between 3 and 16 feet out.) And Bam Adebayo is throwing down 19.3 points a contest attacking the basket (37 percent of his shots are within 3 feet.)

Meanwhile, Kyle Lowry adds impact that goes far beyond the box score. The one game Lowry missed is the only game Miami lost. Perhaps more telling, the one game Lowry missed is the one game Miami didn’t win by at least 13 points. That’s the impact play Lowry brings from the 2019 champion Raptors. When you’ve got a six-time All-Star accepting a reduced role in your offense as a scorer, that’s venturing into “Bill Walton on the ’86 Celtics” level of depth.

Lowry, plain and simple, is the reason you have to watch NBA basketball to appreciate what makes good teams good. There’s a play late in the Charlotte game where Lowry wrecked a full-court press by getting the ball 60 feet down the court with a perfect inbound pass to set up a 2-on-1 at the basket and an easy score that iced the game. Lowry didn’t get an assist. He got a “hockey assist”—there were two passes on the play—but he was the spark that powered the engine on that play.

That’s what watch-the-game guys buy you. And it’s not like Lowry is a slouch either—he carried a .094 WS/48 in that unselfish beyond-the-box-score role into the game and his defense has shown up in the advanced stats as a big part of the reason Miami is 4-1 and might well be 5-0 if Lowry hadn’t missed the Pacers game.

The scariest part of all this is the fact that Miami hasn’t yet revealed their final form. Herro and Duncan Robinson are in shooting slumps. Lowry hasn’t yet elevated his offense—in an interview, he told media that his backed-off scoring is a deliberate move to get his teammates comfortable with him. (heads-up to Mike Breen of ESPN for reporting that.)

Miami looks like an early Finals favorite. The next team behind them in Net Rating league-wide, the 4-1 Chicago Bulls, stand at plus-7.9, miles behind Miami’s 14-plus (depending on how their 15-point win gets pace-adjusted and averaged with 14.8 on Basketball Reference tomorrow) per-100-possession dominance.

And the game against Charlotte was just more of the same. Lockdown defense from start to finish, mind-bending free throw shooting, and team-oriented basketball combined with All-Star-level talent? Look out, league.

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