'He continued to work': Inside Nikola Jovic's breakout night for the Heat

Nikola Jovic wasn't the only reason the shorthanded Miami Heat pulled off a surprising win in Milwaukee, but he was a big reason.
Miami Heat v Milwaukee Bucks
Miami Heat v Milwaukee Bucks / Stacy Revere/GettyImages

Nikola Jovic made three 3-pointers in the first quarter and scored a career-high 24 points in the Miami Heat’s surprising win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday, but the coaching staff’s favorite moment might have been a defensive stand in the first quarter.

With Bam Adebayo (and Tyler Herro) on the bench and Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard both in the game for the Bucks, all of Miami’s defenders had to be locked in. The Heat were up, 33-22, with just over two minutes left in the opening period. Lillard drove against Duncan Robinson, who forced Lillard baseline. Jovic was looming in the paint between Lillard and Giannis. As Lillard drove, Jovic’s head turned back and forth as he monitored where Giannis was while also making sure he was positioned to help on Lillard. 

Knowing Giannis and Bobby Portis were in the paint, Lillard heaved up a shot. If he got it on the rim, there was a good chance one of his big men could soar in for the putback.

At that moment, Jovic unfurled his 6-foot-10 frame and pounced on Lillard’s shot. The ball never got near the basket. Instead, it hit Jovic’s right hand and went to the floor. Jovic beat Giannis to the ball and then to the other end of the court. As Jovic led the breakaway, Jaime Jaquez Jr. sprinted alongside him. Jovic shoveled the ball to Jaquez, who finished with an easy layup.

A possession that could have cut the Heat’s lead to single digits with their best players on the bench turned into a 13-point hole for the Bucks. They never climbed out of it as the Heat won, 123-97.

“Niko was very good tonight. Obviously, the points will make everybody notice, but he generates more inertia for our team in transition,” Erik Spoelstra said after the game. “His attention to detail, the discipline, understanding the schematics, the multiple efforts, all of these things.”

Jovic isn’t the only reason the Heat managed to beat the third-place Bucks in a game where they were missing Jimmy Butler (personal reasons), Terry Rozier (knee sprain) and Josh Richardson (dislocated right shoulder), but he was a big reason.

Thrust into the starting lineup because of Miami’s latest spate of injuries, Jovic did not look like someone who had put on ice in Miami’s previous 10 games.

“It felt great,” Jovic told the Bally Sports broadcast after the game. “I was working out and staying ready.”

Instead, Jovic made an open 3-pointer on Miami’s first possession. He made another three minutes later, and another five minutes after that. Jovic scored eight of Miami’s first 11 points in a wire-to-wire win.

“Niko led the team today,” Adebayo said.

In all, Jovic shot 8 of 13 overall and 5 of 8 on 3s. The Bucks put Giannis on Jovic to start the game, but only nominally. Giannis will often “guard” the opponent’s least-threatening offensive player so he can sag off and wreak havoc as a help-side defender in the paint. 

The Heat saw this and took advantage early. On their first possession, Herro and Adebayo ran an empty-side pick-and-roll on the right side of the court. Adebayo was met by two Bucks defenders – Brook Lopez and Giannis – in the paint, so he pivoted and found Jovic on the left wing. Jovic didn’t hesitate to shoot the open 3. Giannis scrambled to contest but he was too far away. Jovic’s shot arched over Giannis’s outstretched arm and through the net.

These are the exact kind of shots the Heat want to generate and Jovic to take. They are also the kind of shots that Jovic got playing for Serbia during the FIBA World Cup last summer, when he shot 42% on 3s and was among the biggest surprise performers of the whole tournament. Jovic is shooting 45.3% on 3s this season on low volume (24 of 53). Offense isn’t the problem. When he started 10 straight games earlier this season because of injuries, Jovic shot well, pushed the pace and was productive on that end.

Defensively, there have been concerns. At various points this season, Jovic has looked lost in Miami’s multiple-defense scheme. He can provide some good defense early in the shot clock but the help defense and multiple efforts deep into the shot clock weren’t there. If opponents worked the clock enough, they’d eventually find an open shot more times than not when Jovic was on the floor.

That was in Jovic’s last start before Tuesday night. A couple of days later, the Heat traded for Rozier and revamped the rotation. Jovic went from being on the court to start games to playing only in garbage time for the next three weeks.

But Jovic and the coaching staff didn’t get discouraged. Those 10 starts provided valuable experience and film to learn from.

“He’s been making progress for multiple years,” Spoelstra said. “It’s not something that happens overnight, and it’s not something that’s been linear. There’s been ups and downs and learning in a competitive forum, going to Sioux Falls, having his stints with us where he’s starting and being accountable to play at a high level.

“All of that stuff matters, and he’s been very dedicated,” Spoelstra continued. “And I see a maturity and a growth from last year to this year. Even handling when we get guys back and not getting discouraged. He continued to work.”

After Sunday’s narrow loss to the Boston Celtics in which he logged zero minutes, Jovic asked a few assistant coaches to get in extra work in Miami’s practice gym. As most people were settling in for Super Bowl parties, Jovic stayed late working on his game. 

He was in the starting lineup two nights later. Yes, mostly because of injuries, but also because of the work that doesn’t go unnoticed by the coaching staff.

“When guys start to do that,” Spoelstra said, “You start to see things change.”