Starting lineup change, better shots and more takeaways from Heat practice ahead of pivotal Game 3 vs Bucks

Apr 19, 2023; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Bobby Portis (9) drives for the basket against Miami Heat guard Duncan Robinson (55) during the third quarter during game two of the 2023 NBA Playoffs at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 19, 2023; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Bobby Portis (9) drives for the basket against Miami Heat guard Duncan Robinson (55) during the third quarter during game two of the 2023 NBA Playoffs at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports /

MIAMI — The Miami Heat can feel good about returning home with a split series against the betting favorite to win the championship. On the flip side, they also squandered an opportunity to go up 2-0 against a Milwaukee Bucks team that has had star Giannis Antetokounmpo for just 11 minutes in this series.

Given the blowout nature of Game 2, and that the Heat had few answers for a short-handed but capable Bucks team, the pressure is squarely on the Heat as the series turns to Miami. It’s not an overstatement to say that Friday afternoon’s practice ahead of Saturday night’s Game 3 was the most important of the season. It’s telling that owner Micky Arison was in attendance, along with the usual C-suite crew of Pat Riley, Alonzo Mourning, Andy Elisburg, Nick Arison and Ruth Riley.

Here are the big takeaways and intel from that practice, and what Bam Adebayo, Kevin Love, Max Strus and Erik Spoelstra discussed with reporters.

Spoelstra has a plan for the starting lineup, but he’s not telling

The Heat’s starters have been outscored by 2.7 points every 100 possessions in this series. There’s an obvious size mismatch, with the Bucks starting 7-footer Brook Lopez alongside Giannis or, when he’s absent, physical power forward Bobby Portis. The Heat, meanwhile, are starting the 6-foot-5 Max Strus at “power forward.” Strus guarded Lopez in the first game and Lopez was largely passive. The Bucks adjusted, got Lopez the ball in the paint, and Strus struggled to contain his size.

Spoelstra has considered making a change to the starting lineup. Specifically, sliding Kevin Love back into the starting front court. Based on what was said after practice, my guess is that a starting lineup change could be coming, but it also depends on if Giannis — sidelined for Game 2 with a lower back contusion — is available.

“We’ll see,” Spoelstra said before dropping this hint: “And then you have the other part of it, preparing against two teams and preparing if [Antetokounmpo] plays or if he doesn’t play.”

Love responded similarly when a reporter asked if he expected to be moved back into the starting group.

“We’ll see,” Love said. “A lot of it is going to be dependent upon if Giannis is playing.”

If Giannis does play, moving Love into the starting group to defend Lopez while Adebayo picks up Giannis makes the most sense, with Strus shifting to shooting guard and Gabe Vincent and Jimmy Butler playing their usual positions. In that case, the defensive matchups could be:

Vincent →  Middleton
Strus → Allen
Butler → Holiday
Love → Lopez
Adebayo → Antetokounmpo

Then there’s the other, less-discussed option. What if Spoelstra swerved and returned to starting Caleb Martin. Martin, who started 49 games at power forward before being moved into a bench role after the All-Star break, still gives up size to Lopez but is much more experienced fronting bigs in the post and has the added benefit of creating turnovers and triggering Miami’s transition offense. Perhaps this becomes more of an option if Giannis is not available for the Bucks, giving Martin a more manageable assignment against Portis.

Vincent →  Middleton
Strus → Allen
Butler → Holiday
Martin → Portis
Adebayo → Antetokounmpo

Doing this would preserve the effective Love-and-Kyle Lowry combo off the bench, and potentially open the door for someone like Victor Oladipo to play more minutes or Duncan Robinson to play against Milwaukee’s second unit, where he’d be less susceptible to picking up fouls.

“You want to figure out what makes the most sense for our team to set up the rest of the rotation,” Spoelstra said.

Yes, Max Strus will still get time against Brook Lopez (and other big men)

Through two games, Lopez has shot 5 of 7 when defended by Strus and Portis has shot 3 of 5 in that matchup. This will be an issue in this series. Strus is simply too small to guard Lopez on the block, and swapping assignments with Adebayo if Giannis doesn’t play isn’t ideal either (since Strus would just end up on Portis).

But it’s apparent that Strus will see some time on Lopez. That could be because no change to the starting lineup is coming, or because the Heat prefer to switch on defense and know that could result in times where Lopez ends up guarded by Strus. Either way, the Heat spent some time Friday going over counters.

“I’m sure they feel like they want to take advantage of his size a little bit more,” Spoelstra said of the Bucks targeting the Lopez-Strus matchup.

Added Adebayo: “We need to do a better job of helping Max and making sure [Lopez] has an extra body on him.”

The Heat want to get to more of their shots, and less of the ones Milwaukee wants them to take

The Heat are averaging only 30.5 3-point attempts per game in this series. Not nearly enough, especially against a Bucks team that’s among the league’s best at scoring in the paint. The Heat will not match Milwaukee’s at-the-rim efficiency with midrange jumpers. Yet 43% of Miami’s offense has come from the midrange region.

It can be tough to veer into other shots against Milwaukee’s defense, which asks its center to drop back to protect the rim, inviting opponents to take open long 2s. Basketball players want to take open shots. To pass one up to try to find another shot that may never come can be counterintuitive.

This was a focus of Friday’s film session and practice. Searching out more efficient looks in the paint or beyond the arc.

“We spent some time on that today,” Strus said. “It’s gonna be a huge part of our decision-making.”

Drop coverage isn’t rare in the NBA. Teams with more plodding bigs generally employ this as a base defense. The Heat can beat it, just as they did in Game 1, but to do so they need to keep shooting 3s (even when those shots aren’t going in) and work harder to straight-line their pick-and-roll offense and get to the basket.

“It’s not like we haven’t been successful against that coverage. We know what to do,” Spoelstra said. “They’re trying to get us out of the shots we want to get to, and that’s what competition is all about: Who can get who to blink. They got us to blink last game, we weren’t very efficient against that coverage. So they’re definitely not going to change that coming into this next game.”

The Heat would like to get up something closer to 40 3s every game.

Tightening up on defense is a focus

Beyond the obvious size issue, the Heat also need to just play harder and communicate better on defense than they did in Game 2, when they gave up 20 fastbreak points and several more in semi-transition.

“We have to be better on our coverages,” Love said. “If we’re switching, all being on the same page with eye to eye communication. That was definitely our focus (during Friday’s practice).”

A few quick notes as to what we could see from Miami’s defense in Game 3:

  • More ball pressure on the passers. The Heat will more aggressively send double-teams when Jrue Holiday or Khris Middleton are running pick-and-rolls. Not only does this increase the chances of creating a turnover, it makes it more difficult for them to find mismatches such as Lopez being guarded by Strus.
  • The Heat will experiment with different coverages and mixing up matchups. Adebayo could see more time guarding Lopez. Butler, who has spent most of the series guarding Holiday, could pick up Middleton more often. Things will shuffle around when Lowry, Oladipo and Martin are on the floor.
  • We could see Butler assigned to Grayson Allen or other lesser threats, at times, in order to spring him loose as a rover who can jump passing lanes and trigger transition opportunities.
  • The Heat will use a healthy amount of zone.

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