The Miami Heat’s plan on defense starts with slowing down Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum.
Whether he is starting out slow or fast, Jayson Tatum will get his points more often than not. In the second round series against the Philadelphia 76ers, both situations appeared before him. Tatum had three points at the start of the fourth quarter and ended up with 19 in Game 6. In Game 7, he had 25 at half, en route to a record breaking 51 points to close out the series.
For the Miami Heat, it is not about how you shut Tatum down, but how you slow him down. And that may come with changes in the rotation.
The Heat split the season series with the Boston Celtics, winning the final two games. The last one came at the end of January, still before the trade deadline that brought in Kevin Love and changed Miami’s approach on both offense and defense. A lot has changed since then, especially with a transformed Heat team in the playoffs, but there are some things we can take away from those regular-season encounters and even last year’s matchup.
The first is Haywood Highsmith. He hasn’t logged many minutes in the playoffs, but he was a Tatum stopper in the regular season, especially in the last two games. Tatum shot only 14.3% and tallied four turnovers with Highsmith as his defender, according to Second Spectrum.
Haywood’s constant physicality made it difficult for Tatum when coming off screens, something he does often in Boston’s offense. Highsmith’s wingspan and mobility takes away the initial advantage Tatum usually has.
Highsmith’s discipline will be key to guard Tatum’s isolations. According to InStat, 19.1% of Tatum’s plays last series against the Sixers came on isolations, and he scored 1.06 points per chance. He was able to get to his spots using his size and strength, but Highsmith has the frame to complicate that approach.
The Heat prefer to switch ball screens on defense and the Celtics will target guys like Max Strus and Duncan Robinson on pick-and-rolls to get mismatches for Tatum. Especially against lineups with only one big for the Celtics (usually Al Horford), Bam Adebayo will get dragged to the perimeter, making Highsmith the main rim protector off the ball.
Finally, Miami’s zone defense. Spoelstra will sprinkle it in to throw the opponent out of rhythm. With Highsmith at the top with a guard, Miami’s focus will be on Tatum as a ball-handler, with the helpers close by. There will be open teammates in the corners, but Highsmith can crown Tatum’s vision and narrow those passing windows.
Defending the double-big lineup
Celtics coach Joe Mazzula recently went to the double-big lineup, with Horford and Robert Williams III starting in the frontcourt, that caused so many problems to Miami last season and may force Spoelstra to think twice about Highsmith’s minutes.
Inserting Williams into the starting five may have saved the season for the Celtics, matching him up with the opposing team’s least dangerous offensive weapon (that ended up being PJ Tucker last season with the Heat and this season with Philly), which allowed him to roam around the paint and help at the rim.
This strategy may be employed to start this series, with Williams packing the paint against Butler and Adebayo, forcing Kevin Love, Caleb Martin or Highsmith to make shots or plays off the dribble.
The Heat have to make more of their 3s — closer to the 45% mark they shot against the Bucks than the 30.6% they did against the Knicks. Can Highsmith, a 33.9% 3-point shooter during the season, be trusted? And how does that affect the Tatum defense?
This is why Spoelstra trusts Martin more. He’s been one of the main point-of-attack defenders for the Heat in the playoffs, but in the previous series he has been mostly defending guards such as Jrue Holiday and Jalen Brunson.
Historically, Martin has struggled to guard Tatum due to a significant difference in strength, which allowed Tatum to get to the rim at will, shooting a whopping 72.7% when guarded by Martin.
That may force some closer help from the Heat, something Spoelstra may not like to see much of, especially if the Celtics continue to shoot close to 40% from distance.
The Heat may also need to deploy Jimmy Butler on Tatum at times, depending on the condition of his ankle. This isn’t really a strategy we will see much of the time, because you want Butler roaming off the ball and not having to spend so much of his energy on this side of the floor, but his physicality and his presence alone might be just enough to force Tatum into some rushed shots or to get rid of the ball.
The same thinking may be true for Bam Adebayo. Having Bam on Tatum closes driving avenues and turns Tatum into a pull-up shooter, which may be positive for Miami. Again, not something to be used consistently, but at times.
Essentially, the Heat’s defense on Tatum will depend on their rotation and that will be mostly connected to their shooting. Kevin Love hitting his shots forces Mazzula to seat Williams or have Horford on him, which opens space for Butler and Bam inside. With Kevin Love out, Caleb Martin may be your “four,” but that can open up driving opportunities for Tatum. Highsmith has been the best Tatum defender this season, but he has to be a factor on offense to see the floor.
The first two games may offer Spoelstra a better picture of what the rotation should look like.
I think Cody Zeller may end up losing his minutes, with Love playing the non-Bam minutes and the Heat choosing to go with a more switchable defensive lineup — something along the lines of Gabe Vincent, Martin, Butler and one of Lowry/Strus/Highsmith. (Expect a lot of Vincent-Lowry lineups and even some instances of Strus and Robinson at the same time to space out the Celtics defense.)
This series offers the Heat some challenges much closer to the ones they saw against the Bucks than the Knicks, but with a much more dynamic duo of wings in Brown and Tatum.