Coup’s Notebook Vol. 33: Bam’s Go-To Move, Top Siding Strus, A Whole Lotta Clutch and Bradley Beal’s Interesting Zone Wrinkle

The Miami HEAT are 9-11, No. 11 in the Eastern Conference with a Net Rating of -1.1, No. 21 in the NBA. They’re about to embark on another four-game road trip with two games against the Boston Celtics sandwiched in the middle. Here’s what we’ve been noting and noticing.

Have you ever noticed how Bam Adebayo rarely takes hook shots? He certainly can and has used them, but as a downhill, pick-and-roll player Adebayo has most often gravitated toward push shots and floaters to capitalize on momentum. Even when contact turns him away from the rim, or he initializes contact out of a post-up, he’s typically not going over one shoulder for a hook, preferring to keep two hands on the ball – which has the benefit of allowing him to pump fake and draw fouls – so he can get to a short jumper.

The fact that it’s a jumper he leans on at all is unusual. Most bigger players, non-Nikola Jokic division, don’t have the touch to shoot a regular jumper from such short range. Even Adebayo didn’t quite have that touch earlier in his career – he says playing HORSE and trying circus shots has helped him there – but now he’s reached the point where he can effectively pullup from anywhere in the paint with a normal follow through much in the same way Kevin Durant can.

For a player who sometimes struggles to score against elite length and rim protection, it’s a critical skill. Push shots and floaters are shots that you shoot going into a defender and going into size isn’t always a wise decision. With a jumper, Adebayo can both get elevation on the ball with two feet underneath him while also add some fade to get it over the top of someone like Kristaps Porzingis.

Notebook 33: Bam Go-To Shot

“He’s developing that go-to shot where you just have this feeling now when he’s getting in the paint, at the circle, he’s going right or left against length, you feel like that shot is going in every single time,” Erik Spoelstra says. “It’s not every time, but you just get a sense where players get to that level like, ‘Oh, that’s going in.’ All the great players get to that point. And that’s a great look for him. It’s right in that in-between game, it’s not a 17-foot shot, its aggressive, assertive, [with] elevation, he can get it off against bigger guys.

“I think it’s just amazing when he does that, when he really elevates. When he gets off the floor and his release point is over seven feet, I think that’s the best version of that pullup.”

So far this season, no center has attempted more non-rim paint shots than Adebayo, as he leads both Giannis Antetokounmpo (105 attempts) and Jokic (104) with 121. If you narrow his attempts in that zone to just jumpers, only Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (41) has taken more than Adebayo (33), with Durant coming in third. The next center on that list is Joel Embiid, with 17 attempts. In other words, Adebayo is displaying the touch to take short jumpers like a guard, or one of the best and most unique shooters of all time in Durant, despite being a 6-foot-9 center.

Efficiency still matters. League average on non-rim paint shots is about 45 percent. Adebayo is currently at 43. That should improve considering he finished at 49 percent in that region last season – Jokic, typically the best from that range, was over 60 percent – despite the thumb injury, as should his 39 percent on short-range jumpers after being closer to 44 a year ago. The Shot Quality data has remained right around the same level. Adebayo’s tough shots haven’t gotten tougher, he’s just taking a few more of them.

That’s probably the best part. The volume. Adebayo won’t reach Jokic levels on short shots just as most wings not named Durant or Kawhi Leonard don’t reach Michael Jordan’s efficiency from the mid-range. Having a shot you know you can get to comfortably in any situation, even against length, is hugely valuable in a playoff series. Miami still needs Adebayo to roll to the rim, and they still need Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro and Kyle Lowry to playmake, but part of becoming a go-to- scorer is having a go-to shot and Adebayo is been growing into his for years.

Before he missed the last two games with a shoulder injury, something interesting was happening with Max Strus. Yes, his three-point percentage had dropped to 35.3 after topping out at 41 percent last season, but it’s still early enough and Strus was closer to 38 percent before the most recent road trip where so many players missed games and Strus had to take even tougher shots than usual.

Forget about the percentages for a moment. What’s interesting about Strus is that, per 100 possessions, his three-point frequency had dropped a little (12.3 per 100 down from 13.9) while his two-point rate was skyrocketing, up to 6.3 per 100 from 3.8. Last season 78 percent of Strus’ shots came from beyond the arc. This season that number has fallen to 65.9.

Some of this is purposeful. Strus hasn’t been shy in talking about how he’s more than just a shooter – Spoelstra echoes the same sentiment – and previously spoke about how he’s worked in the offseason to expand his off-the-bounce game. And yet some of that intention comes from how he’s being defended. If you know teams are going to start chasing you off the line, it’s only natural to work on the skills you’ll need to counter that coverage.

Against Cleveland earlier this week, Strus only took five threes. Spoelstra noted afterwards that it mostly had to do with the Cavaliers defensive focus.

“They were playing on the top side of all of our shooters,” Spoelstra said. “It requires extra efforts, extra focus to get to the second layer of your offense. I thought at times we did, but for the most part they took us out of our actions with the physicality and keeping our shooters from getting to the three-point line.”

What does that top-siding look like? It’s essentially Strus’ defender fighting over the top of screens to get a rear-view contest should Strus attempt to capitalize on the brief window of opportunity.

Notebook 33: Strus Top Siding

Nothing too complicated, but what Cleveland also did is something Utah popularized against Duncan Robinson a few years back, which was bringing a third defender over from further along the arc to add another layer of constriction to the shooter’s space.

And then, of course, there are possessions where Strus is simply being face-guarded or pressured.

Miami has seen all of this before. Strus has been in some ways at a disadvantage because, in coming into the rotation after Robinson – whose two-point rate has also doubled this season – he was facing defenses that already had a couple of seasons worth of experience against Robinson. Strus has always been facing coverages designed for someone else. The benefit, of course, is that he’s been able to adjust. He’s shooting 57 percent from two and has shown some nice touch on floaters. Strus and Robinson shooting more twos because they’re being pressured at the arc is not inherently an issue if the efficiency is still there – both will likely see their percentages rise over time – but it does change the geography of the floor somewhat if the ball is staying in their hands rather than their gravity creating attack space for Miami’s lead playmakers.

The HEAT have scored reasonably well over the past two games without Strus, but it took the best first half of Kyle Lowry’s career and one of the best offensive games Adebayo has ever had in order to get there. The offense (No. 24 at 109.6 points per 100) will need Strus to get back closer to league average or better, the requirements of that need might just be a little different than they’ve ever been before.

How Much Clutch Is Too Much Clutch?

Miami currently leads the league in clutch games, meaning contests that are within five points in the final five minutes, with 15. If they continue at this pace, with 75 percent of their games tightly contested down the stretch, they have a chance to be the first team to finish over the 60-game mark in the past decade.

Is that a good thing? It’s a little bit of yes, a little bit of no. Being in a ton of close games means you always have a chance to win. The glass half empty viewpoint is you also tend to have a chance to lose. There’s only so much control teams have over the outcomes of games that come down to a few possessions going one way or another, and no matter how exciting the finishes are it’s always better to take chance out of the equation by earning a bigger lead before those final five.

Predictably, the results for teams leading the league in clutch games are a mixed bag. Of the past 10 teams who have led in that category, four of them have missed the playoffs outright. Another four lost in the first round – including the 2017-18 HEAT – and the remaining two, the 2016-17 Wizards and 2019-20 Nuggets, lost in seven games in the second round. Go back even further and you’ll see more of the same, teams that are well outside the postseason picture and teams that had chance at taking a first-round series.

The one exception? The 1999 Pacers team that made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals before falling to the Knicks. That was a 50-game lockout season, so it’s an exception in more ways than one.

Does any of this matter right now, while the HEAT are dealing with so many injuries? Not really. You take wins however you can get them. But as they get closer to whole they’ll probably want to finish off some of these games before getting into the clutch. As fun as close games are, point differentials and Net Rating have generally been better indicators of long-term prospects.

We don’t need to belabor the point about the HEAT’s zone usage. With this recent run of shorthanded games where they’ve leaned on the coverage even more they’re not only blowing previous zone records out of the water, they’re redefining how zone can be employed in an NBA game. There are likely to be diminishing returns over time – over the past five seasons Miami’s zone has allowed 0.97 ppp before New Year’s Eve and 1.11 ppp after, an effect which is consistent each year – as teams prep for it, but for now it’s a fixture in the team’s night-to-night oeuvre.

Washington never really figured out the zone in these three recent games. They knew where to put players and where to probe, but their approach was never as consistent as Cleveland’s, for example, early last week where the Cavaliers were screening the zone for Donovan Mitchell or Darius Garland on one side and then flipping it to the other ballhandler as he dashed through the weak-side gap at full speed. That said, the Wizards did have an interesting wrinkle that is worth paying attention to.

Most teams will flash their big men to the heart of the zone. They’re big targets and they can keep the ball high when the flanks of the zone collapse to the ball. The teams with highly skills bigs who can operate in traffic at the free-throw line can be an absolute nightmare for the coverage. Kristaps Porzingis made some shots in that area for the Wizards, but he was a far cry from being a true zone buster. So, in certain spots, Wes Unseld Jr. went to a different look.

Notice who is flashing to the middle on these possessions?

Notebook 33: Beal Middle Zone

Part of what makes the zone so effective is that it removes some agency from the oppositions high-level scorers. With their usual attack zones stripped way, it’s common to see high-usage players suddenly stuck just swinging the ball around the perimeter. Bradley Beal is far and away Washington’s most talented offensive playmaker, so they just stuck him right in the middle of the action.

There aren’t a ton of Beal analogues around the league so this may be a moot point, but we could start seeing more of this, more of guards and wings working in the middle of the zone, as teams come to expect the coverage from the HEAT.

-At just over 33 percent, Miami clearly isn’t shooting as well from three as last year when they led the league. That much is clear. But their offense has also dipped because their two-point shooting, No. 24 at 52.3 percent, has slipped about a percentage point. We’ll see where that ends up once the team gets healthier, but it’s notable given that there’s been an increase in unassisted shots being taken.

-Miami is currently sitting No. 14 in Defensive Rebounding Percentage, but here’s something a little deeper. On opponent shots taken at the rim – where you might think size plays a larger role – the HEAT are No. 11 in defensive rebounding. But on corner threes, shots with a wider range of outcomes as far as where the ball will land, they are No. 25. They’re also allowing the second-most corner threes in the league after allowing the sixth-most last season.

-Always a pretty slow team, Miami’s defensive pace – the average length of their defensive possessions – has slipped about half a second from last season when they had the “slowest” defense in the league at around 15 seconds. Not a huge shift, but a small way of showing how teams are getting more early offense against the HEAT’s defense, which is slowly climbing up the leaderboard now sitting at No. 12 (albeit with splits that still dramatically favor their zone coverage).

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