Bam Adebayo is an All-Star. He’s one of the NBA’s most versatile defenders. The center is extremely skilled offensively, an ace passer from the high post and powerful finisher inside.
But his return in Game 4 of the NBA Finals wasn’t all good news for the Heat.
Adebayo disrupted the offensive success Miami found in his absence. With Adebayo sidelined the previous two games by a neck injury, the Heat used Meyers Leonard and Kelly Olynyk at center. Unlike Adebayo, Leonard and Olynyk are eager 3-point shooters.
With Leonard and Olynyk spacing the floor, Jimmy Butler thrived.
His drives rarely drew help defenders at the basket. The big Lakers who usually would’ve contested shots at the rim were pulled by Leonard and Olynyk to the perimeter. Butler made mincemeat of his man, either blowing by to the rim or getting him off balance and drawing a foul.
With Butler thriving, Miami thrived.
Butler quietly led the Heat to one of the top offensive nights in NBA Finals history in Game 2. In Game 3, he loudly exploded for 40 points in a Miami win.
A sometimes-reluctant outside shooter, Butler became the first player to score 40 without attempting a 3-pointer in the playoffs since 2014 (LaMarcus Aldridge) and in the Finals since 2002 (Shaquille O’Neal). That style doesn’t work as well with Adebayo, another non-shooter from beyond the arc.
The Heat scored well in Game 1 with Butler and Adebayo sharing the court. But that’s when Miami had Goran Dragic, who opens so many more actions. Those are now off the table with Dragic sidelined.
Removing Dragic’s minutes, here are Butler’s and the Heat’s points per 100 possessions in the Finals by center:
Miami has also played without any of its three centers, but those small lineups have gotten crushed, especially against Davis.
Perhaps, this is just a catch-22. The Heat can have the requisite rebounding and defense with Adebayo or the requisite scoring without him – but maybe not both.
The Lakers are the better team. They dictate terms and put Miami in a bind.
But Heat have options.
Miami could stagger Butler and Adebayo more. In Game 4, they played 29 minutes together. Small-sample alert: The Heat had a 175.0 offensive rating in Adebayo’s five minutes sans Butler. Adebayo still works well as a passing hub with shooters (i.e., not Butler) and cutters around him.
Though far more drastic, Miami could also reduce Adebayo’s playing time. Yes, that could be catastrophic on the boards and maybe even defensively. Olynyk and Leonard aren’t nearly as good as Adebayo overall.
But remember, a pivotal moment in the stretch-five revolution came when- the eighth-seeded Hawks told Pero Antic to bomb away against the top-seeded Pacers in the 2014 playoffs. Pero Antic! He wasn’t a particularly good player, and he shot just 17% in the series. But by dragging Indiana center Roy Hibbert to the perimeter and spacing the floor, Atlanta flummoxed the Pacers and pushed them to seven games.
A stretch five can be that effective.
Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard are excellent rim protectors. Getting them out of the paint has tremendous value.
Even without Adebayo, the Heat did a good job of collectively walling off the paint in Game 3. It’s not as if Miami would just give up on defense if deprioritizing Adebayo.
Of course, the Lakers threw a wrinkle at the Heat by using Davis to defend Butler and going under screens set for Butler in Game 4. With or without Adebayo, Butler must come ready to shoot the 3-pointers available to him in Game 5 tomorrow. Butler has the capability to make Los Angeles pay for prioritizing paint defense.
Maybe Miami coach Erik Spoelstra can devise other actions to get his team clicking when Butler and Adebayo share the floor. Spoelstra consistently makes excellent at adjustments.
But it’s tough to find solutions.
As good as they are individually and often together, Butler and Adebayo just don’t look like a great pairing for this matchup