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Never Spo Down: On Miami’s Success Without Chris Bosh

Despite losing Chris Bosh, Erik Spoelstra is keeping the Miami HEAT afloat with ingenuity.

Ben Dowsett

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It takes gumption to be a successful NBA head coach, and Erik Spoelstra wouldn’t be here without it. At 41 years old and nearly two seasons into a Big Three era that would terrify many grizzled sideline veterans, Spo staked his career and legacy on a new iteration of modern basketball, downsizing his HEAT team in the wake of a Chris Bosh injury and keeping them that way even once Bosh returned. The move in part fueled two straight title runs, along with a league-wide spacing revolution.

With these dilemmas more commonplace a few years later, it’s easy to forget just how huge of a risk this was at the time. Spoelstra was willingly giving up an edge in an area most basketball people were conditioned to associate with success (size down low), banking on the trade-off elsewhere being worth eschewing the traditional approach. That he did it all with the weight of perhaps the most intense scrutiny a team (and star player) had ever faced to that point in history on his back is all the more impressive.

The stakes are lower now; Spo’s success earned him what most would assume is a longer leash from Pat Riley, and with LeBron James back home in Ohio, he can sleep knowing his job isn’t in jeopardy if he can’t win the championship every year. But with a Bosh ailment again taking a big piece off his chessboard, Spoelstra is right back at it. And this time around, without two stars in their prime to pick up the load, his team’s showing might be all the more impressive.

In the East’s fifth spot, but just three games clear of ninth coming out of the break, Bosh’s heart-breaking injury had some people around the NBA believing Miami was no longer a legitimate threat in the East. The HEAT had a point differential more in line with a .500 team than a true contender, and while they’d kept things afloat surprisingly well during non-Bosh minutes while he was healthy, the trickle down to his replacements and primary facets of the team identity was a serious weight to bear.

So naturally, Miami is 10-4 since the news. They have the league’s seventh-ranked offense and its fourth-ranked defense, good for fourth overall on a per-possession basis.

A few bits of lineup creativity are at the heart of the success, one of which came before the Bosh news and has continued to pay dividends since. Amar’e Stoudemire has taken Hassan Whiteside’s place in a small ball starting unit that nearly defies logic with its success; the Goran Dragic-Dwyane Wade-Joe Johnson-Luol Deng-Stoudemire quintet is the best five-man unit in the NBA with at least 75 minutes logged since the break.

Stoudemire may not have a ton left in the tank, but Spoelstra is eking out every last drop. The opening stretches of first and third quarters make up the vast bulk of STAT’s minutes and are often his only appearances in a given game, and he’s only asked to do what he does best – dive to the hoop in pick-and-roll, post up mismatches and utilize all of the space four wings around him generate to do useful things. Even when spacing is imperfect, as it often is with Wade on the floor, three crafty ball-handlers and Stoudemire’s still-present ability to finish without much length around to challenge him has made him a viable roll man again:

 

Turns out he can still get up over the occasional guy his size, too.

Really, though, it’s the other guys who are flourishing most in these units. Dragic, Deng and Johnson are a combined 51.6 percent from distance in this exact starting lineup since Bosh has been sidelined, per nbawowy.com, a figure that’s at once unsustainable and representative of how open the average look is out there with so much free space available. It’s even more evident near the hoop – Miami is shooting 73 percent within three feet of the basket while these five play together, and lead the NBA in points in the paint as a team since the All-Star break.

How the starters are surviving defensively is anyone’s guess, and whether they can sustain it is a fair question. Deng has been a warrior banging against bigger guys on nearly a nightly basis, but Miami is surviving on pure guile at times. Their speed allows them to close to shooters effectively, and they’ve been worlds better than anyone could have expected at forcing teams to settle for midrange shots, particularly with Stoudemire on the floor. STAT’s lineups are somehow only allowing 60 percent within three feet of the hoop compared to Whiteside’s 57 percent on the season, likely in large part a function of an uber-conservative scheme that drops him way back against two man action and minimizes the damage he can do getting out of position.

The HEAT arguably has an even larger edge when the benches start to trickle in, however. Whiteside would surely be the favorite for Sixth Man of the Year if he’d been in this role since November considering there simply isn’t a second unit in the league adequately prepared to handle him physically.

Miami is second in offensive rebounding percentage since the break despite almost never playing two bigs together, in large part because they collect nearly a third of their own missed shots while Whiteside lays waste to helpless bench units. Rookies Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson have both impressed, the former as a versatile and effective defender and the latter as a sharpshooter canning a ridiculous 63 percent of his triples on over 26 minutes a night since the break. Johnson has been excellent since arriving via buyout as a plug-and-play option who fits Spoelstra’s tinkering style perfectly (he’s logged at least 100 minutes alongside seven different teammates already in just nine games).

Spo knows exactly what he’s got with this group: One high-caliber big man, one true point guard with a capable shot, two situational bigs (Stoudemire and Josh McRoberts) and an abundance of similarly-sized wings with varying skillsets.

Keeping them viable is a tightrope act, particularly to this degree. Dragic is the only player on the entire roster without whom the HEAT have been outscored on a per-possession basis since the break, a remarkable testament to the balance achieved despite a few glaring personnel holes many teams would flounder to account for.

Spoelstra is among the league’s most outside-the-box coaches on defensive assignments, a big part of the team’s success on that end since losing Bosh. In Monday night’s win over Denver, he kept Stoudemire glued to non-shooter Kenneth Faried exclusively (STAT didn’t play a second when Faried wasn’t on the court), alternating Deng and Winslow on the taller, rangier Nikola Jokic. Many coaches balk at a wing defender guarding a talented seven-footer, but Spo is rightfully considering the larger picture – will his team suffer more conceding a few inches of height to Jokic, or by asking a slower Stoudemire to chase a viable floor spacer around the perimeter all night and leave the paint unmanned?

The well might run dry at some point. Spo is asking a lot from guys with plenty of miles on their bodies, and one or two dents to the wing depth at any point could send the whole Jenga stack tumbling. There’s no way guys like Johnson and Richardson can keep burning up nets from deep at this rate, even if they’re mostly shooting open looks. Dragic may have lost a step this year despite functioning well in the scheme, and Wade’s health is never a certainty anymore.

Even if everyone’s whole come playoff time, the specificity of the postseason environment could squeeze out some portion of Spoelstra’s patchwork ingenuity as teams hone in on the weak links in his personnel. Miami has had success minus Bosh, but their ceiling against elite competition only goes so high if he can’t make it back on the court.

Just staying afloat this long would have been an accomplishment, though, and the way the HEAT have continued to churn out wins is a testament to both sides of the coin: Spoelstra’s ingenuity would be useless without player buy-in, and vice versa. An unexpected Bosh return could be both heartwarming and sneakily scary for some Eastern foe come late April; but even if not, all parties will look back on this season knowing no stone went unturned.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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NBA PM: Patrick Beverley Set the Tone for Clippers in Season Opener

Patrick Beverley set the tone for the L.A. Clippers with his aggressive defense in their season opener.

Jesse Blancarte

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“The LA Clippers are going to the Western Conference Finals. Guaranteed.”

That bold statement was made by Charles Barkley during TNT’s coverage of last night’s matchup between the Lakers and Clippers.

While Barkley may have had his hot take canon primed and in mid-season form, that should not overshadow the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers put together a strong showing in their first regular season game since the departure of Chris Paul.

Blake Griffin logged 29 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and knocked down three of his six three-point attempts. Griffin was aggressive and showed no hesitation on his jumper, which seemed to open up lanes for him to drive to the basket (where he is most effective). DeAndre Jordan was fantastic as well, contributing 14 points, 24 rebounds, one assist and one steal.

While the Clippers lost some significant contributors from last season, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jamal Crawford, the team had some returning and new players show that they are capable of filling the void.

Milos Teodosic was just 2-9 from the field, but knocked down two three-pointers and looked comfortable and effective running the team’s offense. Danilo Gallinarni shot just 3-13 from the field but looked healthy and spry, displaying the kind of mobility that is necessary to play the small forward position. His ability to act as a secondary playmaker wasn’t on full display, but there were moments where it was apparent that he could be a big help in generating open looks for his teammates. Lou Williams also looked good in his Clippers debut, scoring in a variety of ways off the bench and contributing six assists as well. Wesley Johnson continues to look confident and aggressive, a continuation from his preseason performances, and is starting to knock down the open shots his teammates are creating for him (which has been a problem for him in the past).

While the Clippers looked solid in their opening act without Paul, it should be noted that the Lakers are a young team overall and their defense has been a major problem for the last few seasons. While the Lakers have added some promising young talent over the offseason, like most young teams, they are going to struggle to slow down veteran teams with potent offenses. It would be a mistake to think the Clippers can replicate this sort of offensive performance every night, especially against the better defensive teams in the league. However, perhaps the most promising part of the Clippers’ season debut was the fact that they seemed to feed off of and embrace the gritty demeanor and style of play that Patrick Beverley brings to the court each and every night.

Last night’s game was the NBA debut for rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who many predict will develop into a star player. Unfortunately for Ball, his opening night matchup came against Beverley, who earned a spot on the 2017 All-Defensive First Team. Beverley repeatedly guarded Ball past half court, pushed him around and did everything he could to throw him off of his game. He held Ball to three points, nine rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes of action.

Beverley, like every NBA player, has heard the hype and noise surrounding Ball and his future in the league (most of it from his outspoken father, LaVar).

“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said. “I told him after the game that due to all the riffraff his dad brings, that he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. I let him know that after the game. What a better way to start than spending 94 feet guarding him tonight — welcome the young guy to the NBA.”

Beverley is one of the more aggressive defenders in the NBA and is known for trying to get under the skin of his opponents, so Lonzo may not face this level of intensity in every game. But based on Beverley’s comments, it’s clear that he expects other players around the league to defend Lonzo aggressively as well.

Snoop Dogg, the rapper and passionate Lakers fan, summed up the issue for Ball arguably better than anyone else has so far.

“His father put him in the lion’s den with pork chop drawers on,” said Snoop.

For his part, Lonzo complimented Beverley on his aggressive defense.

“[Beverley] plays hard. He knows his job. He does it very well,” said Ball. “He gets under people’s skin and plays defense and does what he can to help his team win.”

Beverley set the tone for the Clippers, who looked crisp and confident throughout the game. Griffin’s three-point shot looks like it could finally be a reliable part of his offensive arsenal. Jordan was very active on the glass, pulling down 24 rebounds (possibly inspired in part by his commitment to donate $100 per rebound this season to help the effort to rebuild his hometown of Houston after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey). The rest of the supporting cast played with the sort of cohesion and confidence that takes at least a few weeks into the season to develop. Again, the Clippers’ performance could have stemmed primarily from the Lakers’ shaky defense, but it was encouraging to see the team play with such force and confidence in the absence of Paul.

The Western Conference is extremely talented and deep, so it’s unlikely that the Clippers will make it to the Western Conference Finals as Barkley predicted. However, challenging for a spot in the playoffs and perhaps even doing some damage once there seems to be in the realm of possibility. This is especially the case considering how much of an impact Beverley had Thursday night, both defensively and in setting the tone for the rest of his new teammates.

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Morris Bringing Leadership To Celtics

Marcus Morris chats with Basketball Insiders for a one-on-one exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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Returning just one starter from last year’s top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics underwent wholesale changes this past offseason.

Gordon Hayward signed a super max contract. Danny Ainge pried Kyrie Irving away from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a blockbuster deal. Jayson Tatum was selected with the third overall pick in the NBA Draft.

In early July, though, there was an under-the-radar trade executed that hasn’t been mentioned much. Surprisingly, Celtics guard Avery Bradley was sent to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Marcus Morris, a heady wing with size and versatility to add to a revamped core of players.

Bradley was a mainstay with the franchise for seven years and played a vital role as a part of Brad Stevens’ system, but Boston decided to move in a different direction. As for the man they got in return, he’s thrilled to be there.

“It makes me feel good,” Morris told Basketball Insiders of Ainge dealing one of his best former players for him. “It makes you feel wanted.

“This is my first time since I’ve been in the NBA I’ve been on a team with a bunch of guys that [are] All-Stars. With the maturity of the team being this high and having them high expectations on us, I’m excited to get the season going and see how far we can take this.”

The Detroit Pistons likely wanted to keep him, but the organization clearly felt Bradley’s skill set was too good to pass up. For Morris, he insisted there was no indication that his old team would send him away, but he hasn’t been bashful about talking up his new home.

“Had no idea that I was gonna be a Boston Celtic, but I’m ready for the challenge, you know?” Morris said. “I’m excited. Boston, being a Celtic—it’s something that growing up you don’t really see happening, but when it happens it’s an amazing thing.

“It’s like playing for the Patriots, you know what I mean? One of the most heralded teams and most heralded franchises, and Boston is one of those.”

Entering the seventh season of his career, Morris has remained a steady part of the league. During his time in Detroit, he started nearly every game for the Pistons and found a comfort zone that he believes will carry over in Boston.

“Just continue to be consistent, continue to build on my last past couple of years,” Morris said of his personal goals. “I really felt like I carved my spot in the NBA the last two years—averaging 14 a year and helping my team get to the playoffs one of those years, so I really think I’ve carved a niche in this league.”

The success has come thanks to his versatility and the NBA’s current direction pointing towards that type of game. All of a sudden, not having a defined position makes a player more valuable, something Morris is thankful for as he continues to bring a little bit of everything to the table.

“For guys like me, it’s great,” Morris said. “Coming into the league, I had this ‘tweener’ thing on my back and now it’s like [freaking] great to be a ‘tweener’ at this time. I’m actually happy that it’s switching to my position and guys that can do multiple things are being utilized more in this league.”

Putting the ball in the basket has come fairly easy for Morris, who averaged 14.1 points per game on 42.6 percent from the field over 159 games with Detroit. He’s able to stretch the floor and provide solid spacing offensively, and he envisions doing more than that for this Celtics group.

“And leadership,” Morris said. “I’m not too much of a vocal guy, but I’m a passionate guy on the court. I think that’ll rub off on guys. I love scoring. I love shooting the ball. But that’s not the only thing I do.

“I’ve been a tough defender around this league for the last past years and I’m really looking forward to hanging my hat on that again and just doing whatever it takes for my team to get to that next level.”

Stevens is aware of the impact Morris can bring in the locker room and on the floor. When he returns from a sore knee to make his debut for Boston, that’ll show through his play.

“He’s a guy that can stretch the floor at the four,” Stevens said. “He’s a guy that can guard two through four. He’s tough. He’s smart. He works the right way. We’ll be better with Marcus Morris for sure. The versatility is a very important part of what we want to be.

“Whether he is starting in a couple of weeks or whether he’s coming off the bench, at the end of the day he’s gonna be a critical, critical part of our team.”

While he’s waited to come back, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have stepped up in his absence. With Hayward likely sidelined for the rest of the season, that success will have to be sustained. Morris is a big believer in this promising duo and sees how grounded they are to make that happen.

“They’re mature guys for their age,” Morris said. “Jaylen, I think he’s 20. He’s definitely a lot more mature than I thought. Jayson, too. He’s way more mature than your average 19-year-old.

“At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. I think those guys, they’re ready for the challenge. They love the game. They always in the gym, so I think it’ll be easy for ‘em.”

Part of Morris’ role is guiding those two and the other younger pieces that Boston has as they try and establish themselves as professionals. He’s kind of a coach per se, which is somewhat fitting considering what he did this summer.

Most basketball fans are aware of “The Basketball Tournament” that takes nationwide. For those that aren’t, it’s a single-elimination competition between 64 teams in which the champion receives a $2 million prize. Morris was the head coach of Team FOE—standing for Family Over Everything.

Along with his fellow Kansas alums, including his brother Markieff and Thomas Robinson, Morris coached his team to the final game. Team FOE was in front most of the game but ultimately fell to Boeheim’s Army, a squad filled with former Syracuse Orangemen.

“I was on my way man,” Morris said of coming close. “I actually liked it. I’m a smart guy. Me and basketball stuff, I can put it together real well. I was kinda upset we lost in the fashion that we lost, but we’ll be back next year.

“I’m a smart player,” he said regarding a potential future on the sidelines. “I know the game really well. Coaching comes easy for some guys and I’m just one of those guys.”

You could hear “Coach Morris” down the line, but for now and for years to come, Marcus is focused on his first year with Boston. It’s a team that surely has the talent to be the top team in the East it’s pegged to be. Stevens is a basketball savant with great leadership.

Even without an All-Star like Hayward and a 0-2 start, the Celtics should still be a force to be reckoned with. There’s an even greater demand for them to achieve their potential, especially knowing eyes will be on them, but Morris welcomes the challenge.

“Man, it’s pressure on every team,” Morris said. “It ain’t like it’s just all on the Boston Celtics. It’s pressure on every team. What’s a game without pressure anyway?

“Pressure makes it the best thing. That’s what we need to do anyway. I enjoy the pressure. Me personally.”

Shouldering the load won’t be easy, but if it comes down to it, Morris will be swimming instead of sinking. When all is said and done, he shares the same aspirations as most players do—raising the Larry O’Brien trophy in the summer.

“I want to the win the championship,” Morris said. “You put this type of team together to get to those positions. I’m looking to be playing in June and trying to get to a championship.”

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