Goldberg: Duncan Robinson's connection with Heat's stars makes him irreplaceable

The reason behind Duncan Robinson's reemergence is more than just his evolving skillset. It has to do with his ability to play off the Miami Heat's best players.
Miami Heat v Toronto Raptors
Miami Heat v Toronto Raptors / Mark Blinch/GettyImages

Duncan Robinson’s reemergence as a key part of the Miami Heat’s rotation might be a surprise to some, but not to coach Erik Spoelstra. 

“It’s not at all even a surprise anymore,” Spoelstra said following Wednesday’s 112-103 win in Toronto. “He’s so skilled offensively.”

Robinson had 21 points, six rebounds and seven assists, including 10 points in the fourth quarter, to close out the Raptors and help the Heat get a much-needed win on the road. 

Miami had entered the game having lost four of its last five and was without three starters in Bam Adebayo (left hip contusion), Haywood Highsmith (lower back contusion) and Tyler Herro (right ankle sprain). 

Robinson has started the last 11 games at shooting guard since Herro sustained his injury a month ago in Memphis. Robinson is averaging 17.6 points on 50.4% shooting, 3.6 assists and 3.2 rebounds in the games he’s started. The Heat are 8-3 in those games.

This includes Wednesday’s win in Toronto. Though the Heat led for most of the night, the Raptors over and over fought back to turn wide deficits into one-possession games. When Scottie Barnes’ 3-pointer erased Miami’s 14-point, second-half lead at the start of the fourth quarter, Robinson found Orlando Robinson rolling for a layup and then Jaime Jaquez Jr. for another shot at the basket. Robinson then made a 3-pointer and floated in a bank shot on the next two possessions to finish a run in which he scored or assisted on 10 straight Heat points. The game was never tied again.

“Duncan had a great game,” Kyle Lowry said.

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The Heat’s makeshift starting lineup of Lowry, Duncan Robinson, Jimmy Butler, Caleb Martin and Orlando Robinson opened the game with a 22-7 run before Spoelstra made his first substitution. 

In general, Miami’s lineups with Duncan have been a plus. The preferred starting lineup with Herro out (Lowry, Duncan, Butler, Highsmith and Adebayo) is out-scoring opponents by 11.7 points every 100 possessions. Duncan himself is averaging career highs in points (15), field-goal percentage (48.8%) and assists (2.9).

This has prompted those around the team to wonder if Duncan should remain in the starting lineup even when Herro returns. However, Spoelstra believes he can make a difference regardless of whether he starts or comes off the bench.

“He knows how to complement either unit,” Spoelstra said. “He also knows how to be a focal point of actions. He creates overreactions. He’s got an incredible chemistry with (Jimmy Butler). So much of that has been made of Bam and Duncan’s chemistry and collaboration – which is true for sure – but it’s just as true with Jimmy.”

In fact, the Duncan and Butler pairing has been among Miami’s most productive this season. The Heat are out-scoring teams by 10.7 points per 100 possessions when they share the court and scoring a blistering 122.4 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning The Glass.

When the Raptors cut Miami’s lead to three with three minutes left in the game, Butler found Duncan for two of the Heat’s next three baskets to push the lead back to 10 and put the game away for good.

When Butler goes into his post-ups, Robinson has a knack for remaining in Butler’s line of sight as a bail-out option that can punish an over-aggressive defense. He did it once in the first quarter, then again for a key basket down the stretch.

For the last basket on that key run, Duncan and Orlando set double drag screens for Butler at the top of the floor. When Dennis Schroder hedged above the screen, Duncan alertly slipped to the rim for a wide-open layup.

“Duncan’s become a very good screener,” Spoelstra said. “He has all the nuances of when to screen, when to hold it, when to slip, when to change the angle of the screen, when to get to space. 

“All of those things really helped Jimmy get in the paint,” he continued, “but Jimmy also loves finding him for 3s or for that cut that was a really important one there in the fourth.”

While so much of the attention on Duncan this season has focused on his improvement as a ball-handler and scorer in the paint, it also comes down to playing off his star teammates. His chemistry with Adebayo has been long-standing, but his collaboration with Butler is a big reason why he seems so essential.

“Jimmy is our ‘closer’ or whatever you want to call it,” Duncan said. “But he’s very selfless and he’s going to make the right play, so other guys can be the beneficiary of that.”