Against the Brooklyn Nets Monday, Nikola Jovic started his seventh straight game for the Miami Heat, who are 5-2 in that stretch.
Jovic started alongside Kyle Lowry, Tyler Herro, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo for Miami’s 22nd different starting lineup of the season. As they’ve cycled through injuries, the Heat have used four different starting lineups in these last seven games. All have included Jovic at power forward, hinting that coach Erik Spoelstra could be sticking with the 20-year-old as a starter for the foreseeable future.
“We’ve had a lot of different starting lineups,” Spoelstra said after a recent game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, “and I’m trying to keep as much consistency as possible.”
Before being inserted into the starting lineup as the team dealt with injuries to Caleb Martin, Haywood Highsmith and Butler, Jovic had made only eight other appearances. He’s played more total minutes since his first start of this stretch on Jan. 3 (177.9) than the entire season prior (80.6).
Over the last seven games, Jovic is averaging 7.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 0.7 blocks in 25.4 minutes while shooting 38.8% overall and 40.7% on 3s. These are modest numbers, but the Heat have also outscored their opponents by a total of 42 points in those minutes.
There’s a noticeable difference in the pace of the game with Jovic on the floor. According to Cleaning The Glass, the Heat play in transition 5.5% more often with Jovic on the court, with a big part of that increase coming from pushing off live rebounds.
Jovic has made a habit of grabbing the rebound, turning and sprinting the floor. Whereas Adebayo will bring the ball up with patience as he surveys the court, or Kevin Love will try to beat the defense with an outlet pass, Jovic steps on the gas like he’s trying to make a yellow light.
Jovic is still a developing defender and far from a finished product on that end, but his size at 6-foot-10 makes a difference. Because of his length, he sometimes accidentally gets deflections. But accidental deflections count just as much as on-purpose ones.
As the lineups have changed, Spoelstra has toggled through different starting power forwards this season. Love, Highsmith and Martin have all gotten opportunities. Jovic, in some ways, offers an in-between option.
He’s a willing shooter like Love, provides more size than Highsmith and runs the floor like Martin. He’s not as physical as Love or as versatile defensively as Highsmith or Martin, but he also provides the sort of dynamic offense that teams need in today’s NBA.
Even with Jovic playing more of a role, the Heat have risen to ninth in defensive rating. They are still 19th in offensive rating, but should see a boost with Herro and Jimmy Butler back and healthy. Miami has held its last three opponents to less than 100 points.
But that was also during a peacetime part of the schedule, against the beleaguered offenses of the Orlando Magic, Charlotte Hornets and Brooklyn Nets. How does a starting lineup with Jovic defend playoff teams like the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks?
Those opponents are coming, with a home game against the Celtics scheduled for Jan. 25 and a road game against the Knicks on Jan. 27. Before that, a Jan. 19 game against the Atlanta Hawks (top 10 in offensive rating) will also test Miami’s defense.
Whether Jovic is the long-term starter remains to be seen, but a soft schedule and injuries have opened an opportunity that wasn’t there for most of the season. Jovic has made the most of it, which is all the Heat can ask for.