Was Bam’s Game 2 against the Knicks a failure of aggression, or is he being unfairly maligned?

Apr 30, 2023; New York, New York, USA; Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo (13) controls the ball against New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (23) during the fourth quarter of game one of the 2023 NBA Eastern Conference semifinal playoffs at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 30, 2023; New York, New York, USA; Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo (13) controls the ball against New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (23) during the fourth quarter of game one of the 2023 NBA Eastern Conference semifinal playoffs at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports /

After the Miami Heat’s Game 2 loss to the New York Knicks, the age-old topic of Bam Adebayo’s aggressiveness resurfaced for the umpteenth time. Without Jimmy Butler available due to a sore ankle, Adebayo, selected as an All-Star in 2023, was expected to shoulder a larger scoring burden, something he managed to do very well in the regular season (per Statmuse, Bam averaged 22.3 points and 10.4 rebounds in the 15 games he’s played this year without Butler).

The results on Tuesday were… mixed. Bam finished with 15 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists (with just 1 turnover) in the loss, but the sore point for many fans seems to be the 10 total shot attempts, leaving him with the 4th-most attempts on the night behind Gabe Vincent (17), Caleb Martin (15) and Max Strus (12), three undrafted players currently playing huge roles for Miami in these playoffs.

Some of that was Bam attempting a team-leading 7 foul shots (an area he has otherwise declined in these playoffs), but he only took 1 shot in the 4th quarter and his biggest play was a poor one, bowling over Isaiah Hartenstein on a screen while Jalen Brunson sunk a corner 3 (never mind about the dubiousness of ruling the possession a four-point play). Bam himself immediately took responsibility for the loss, echoing a version of a line he has recycled going back to the 2020-2021 season:

I have long been of the opinion that the Heat will never reach their ceiling as a true championship-caliber team unless Bam can be a force on both ends of the floor.

But I didn’t really have a huge issue with how Bam played on Tuesday.

I know what unaggressive Bam looks like, his back 20 feet from the hoop with the ball in his hands as he looks for an exit strategy. The decoupling of his starting-lineup partnership with Duncan Robinson, their dribble handoff two-man ballet turning Robinson into Bam’s on-court security blanket, was a necessary move for Bam’s offensive growth this season. On Tuesday, I don’t think Bam shied away from moments so much as he played in the flow of an offense missing three shot creators in Butler, Tyler Herro, and Victor Oladipo and took what the defense has been giving, which, in a packed painted area, hasn’t been very much. If you want to argue that your top available player should do more than “play in the flow of the offense,” I won’t dismiss that point, but the Heat are 5-2 these playoffs and lead in the 4th quarter of Tuesday’s match despite being severely shorthanded.

For the postseason as a whole, Adebayo is averaging roughly 17-8-5 per contest, but with a dip in efficiency (47.6% from the field versus 54% during the regular season). Bam has played through a sore hamstring that visibly hampered him through stretches of the Milwaukee series. However, he is no longer on the injury report for that ailment, and it is true to a degree that most players deep in the postseason have nicks and bruises.

Still, there are some encouraging signs here, namely that he is taking a playoff career-high 14.7 shots per game, and that his scoring and shot attempts haven’t been as nearly as erratic as the prior postseason where he averaged a paltry 9.7 shot attempts with great variance in that average (e.g., in games 1 and 2 against Boston last year, Bam took 4 and 6 shot attempts. In Game 3, he attempted 22). In all seven postseason games thus far, Bam has had double-digit shot attempts in each game.

I wanted to highlight some specific plays from Tuesday that are emblematic of what Bam’s being asked to do with the team missing multiple perimeter players. Starting with some of his assists:

Here, Bam drives on Mitchell Robinson, draws Julius Randle’s attention as Josh Hart scrambles to stay on Gabe Vincent, and Caleb Martin gets an open corner 3.

Bam runs a DHO with Strus, who hits Bam back with a bounce pass (an element I’d argue has been sorely lacking for Bam lately; the DHO game should involve him getting the ball back more often so he can go 4 on 3 ala Draymond Green). Bam ends up with two to the ball and is able to find an open Martin, who slices through the defense for an easy layup.

Here, Bam wins an offensive rebounding battle over smaller Knicks defenders, has Robinson hovering back over him, and, rather than force a short jumper, eyes a cutting Strus for a lay-in.

I think where Bam can up his aggression is whenever he is matched up with Hartenstein. The Knicks backup center offered strong minutes in Game 2 (9 rebounds, 4 offensive), but he does not possess the footspeed or athleticism to stay in front of Adebayo. Bam flambéed Hartenstein back in February using his quickness to get to his spots.

Here’s a postseason possession against Hartenstein that serves as a microcosm of the Bam aggression discourse.

Bam has faced multiple interior defenders all postseason as teams have dared Miami to beat them from outside, so you’d want this to be an easier shot or a drawn foul when Bam has a rare opportunity to go one-on-one without much help.  But this is precisely the kind of shot Bam focused on taking all season (and this particular miss was halfway down). Both he and, ironically, Jalen Brunson, lead the league in shots between 5-9 feet this season, attempting 300 of them.

Lastly, a lot has been made of the improved play of Gabe Vincent, filling in for a depleted Heat backcourt with more audacious shot attempts to juice an offense that needs some oomph from the outside. Vincent is currently sinking 40.4% of his threes and averaging 15.1 PPG these playoffs. A lot of his attempts have now looked something like this:

As aggressive as Vincent has been, he needs screens to free him up to take many of these shots and Bam, more than anyone else on the team has to free up his perimeter players (Bam had a team-leading 4 screen assists per game in Game 2).

Ultimately, while I think there’s room for Bam to pick his spots a little better and even force the issue some, his perimeter players need to reciprocate some of the work he’s done in springing them free. As gifted a passer and ball-handler Bam is as a big man, he is still a center who, to some extent, needs guard penetration and creation to get some easy ones to drop and get him going. This is where the Heat, and Bam in particular, miss Tyler Herro.

Bam has had a few subpar postseason games this year, and his postseason resume as a whole is filled with highs and lows, but I didn’t quite understand the finger-pointing at him following Tuesday’s loss after observing him triggering so much of Miami’s actions while still covering for everyone else on defense (an area where Butler’s absence was subtly felt as well). As it stands, I’m not sure this version of the Heat can necessarily facilitate a 20-point-a-night Bam, but I think it would behoove both parties if more of an effort was made to make life a bit easier for him.