In the midst of this miraculous playoff run by the Miami Heat that has them 1 win away from their second NBA Finals appearance in 4 seasons — as an 8th seed at that — we can point to a number of X-Factors that have helped this team get to this point. You can talk about Jimmy Butler’s exploits, the folklore and mythical being that is Playoff Jimmy, dissecting opposing defenses, sneaking into crevices of the paint, maneuvering his way through different coverages, and finding increasingly incredible ways to score. One of the other prevailing talking points is how this group of counted-out, undrafted role players in Max Strus, Duncan Robinson, Gabe Vincent, and Caleb Martin have contributed in a variety of ways and helped this Heat team become even more dynamic. Or you can discuss the grizzled veteran point guard Kyle Lowry, sacrificing his starting spot and becoming the pacemaker and calming presence off of the Heat bench. All of these guys, in some way or another, have helped swing playoff games and series in favor of the Heat, leading them to this point.
But none of it would be possible without Bam Adebayo.
The All-Defense big man has been a seismic force for the Heat in the postseason, both on the defensive side of the ball where his versatility and fluidness allow Miami’s scheme to be one of the most adaptable in the league and on offense, where his growth as a scorer, his increased aggressiveness and his 2-man game with some of the Heat guards, has kept opposing defenses guessing.
Bam’s mere presence has helped Miami play the way they want to, and be as flexible as they’d like to be, and it’s ultimately because of Adebayo’s own malleability on the court.
Let’s start defensively, where Adebayo is the anchor for one of the most aggressive and complicated defensive schemes in basketball. It’s not complicated because of its complexity, but because it requires the Heat to all be succinct as one single organism, working together to be on a string, communicating to switch coverages from man-to-man to their patent zone from one defensive possession to the next.
There are two common themes with what the Heat want to achieve defensively: 1) Make you keep guessing by switching their schemes consistently and 2) Forcing you to make mistakes with their ultra-aggressive, help-oriented style.
In both ways, Adebayo makes life easier for the rest of the Heat.
The Heat are over 5 points per 100 possessions better with Bam on the floor this postseason. The Heat defense goes from allowing over 116 points per 100 possessions without Bam to just over 110 with him. Opponents shoot 7% worse from inside the arc when he’s on the floor.
The Heat lead all teams in the postseason in points off turnovers at over 20 points a game. They have the second-highest opponent turnover percentage in the playoffs as well. This team plays incredibly aggressive defense because it helps fuel their offense and Bam is the catalyst to all of that.
Miami’s perimeter defenders are asked to do a lot of work. They have to fight through screens, they’re throwing tons of help out from the nail, they’ll trap on occasion, and do virtually anything necessary in order to make the opposing team make a mistake.
Like on this possession below, Butler is posted up at the nail, Tatum drives and spins right into the help, and Adebayo is there to pick off the turnover. Miami has made it a goal of there’s in this series against Boston to wall off the paint and avoid dribble penetration so that the Celtics can’t get into their drive-n-kick game.
This possession wasn’t a direct result of Bam, but the fact that he’s on the court allows for Miami to be more aggressive with their help — knowing that he’s there to cover up any lapses.
Just as another example, this play isn’t a direct result of Bam’s defense, but the Heat can be this aggressive (as Martin is here on the help) because they know Bam can cover up mistakes.
But this possession is a great example of how it all comes together. Celtics run a pindown for Brown to curl off of, and Butler fights through to get a great rear-side contest, but Bam’s presence in the paint negates the drive. It forces Brown to kick it out and Brogdon has to try and score in isolation with the shot clock winding down.
But where Bam is most important to this Heat team on defense is as the tactician in the middle of the zone, making sure the Heat stay connected, that zone coverage is balanced, and that Miami’s perimeter defenders can be as aggressive as they’d like.
Watch Bam on this possession, tagging the roller, recovering out to Horford in the corner, and forcing him to kick it out. The Heat’s perimeter defense lapsed there, but this is the right idea.
Above all else, it’s his versatility as a defender that allows the Heat to be so flexible. On this possession, and for a good chunk of Game 2, he was the primary defender on Brown, chasing him around screens like this.
Look at how much ground Bam has to cover as the back-line defender of the zone on this possession. The entire middle of the floor is his responsibility, up until near the free-throw line. Knowing this, Miami’s point-of-attack can be aggressive on defense and force the Celtics into tough shots.
None of these things are eye-popping on the stat sheet or even when you’re watching the game live, but re-watching it, you can feel how much this Heat team relies on Adebayo to be that backline presence, so that they can hound guys on the perimeter whether it be via zone or man-to-man.
We can spend a lot of time dissecting the Heat zone and Bam’s role in it. If you’re interested, I’d suggest checking out this Tweet thread below… but we have to move on.
As for the offensive side of the ball, Adebayo’s role is crucial. He is a DHO hub that helps create open shots and easy opportunities for the likes of Strus, Vincent, Martin, and Robinson — as he does on this possession.
The Heat love running these Chicago actions with Adebayo at the top of the arc, with each corner running a pindown for a guard to pop out and either flowing into a DHO, a high PnR, or spot up for the 3-ball, as Martin does here.
Bam and Robinson, in particular, have developed quite the chemistry together over the course of the last 4 seasons and have now developed these nice pet plays for their 2-man game that can envelop in multiple different types of easy looks.
Additionally, Bam fuels the Heat’s transition offense because he can get a rebound, bring the ball up himself and find the open man — as he does on this play here.
In a half-court-setting, in the past, and even now, teams are willing to sag off of those pet play actions I mentioned above in order to decrease it’s effectiveness but this postseason, Bam has kept them honest by looking to score himself.
The Celtics have been guarding Bam 1-on-1, staying home on shooters, which has forced him to play the aggressor and it’s worked in his favor.
And so now, in the 4th quarter of a close game, Adebayo has the confidence in his own shot. The Celtics send two at Butler, Jimmy makes an excellent pass to Bam for the short-range jumper.
Bam isn’t going to be the primary option for the Heat on offense, that’s Jimmy. But he makes Butler’s job easier through his playmaking, both in transition and in the half-court. He helps create easy looks for the Heat role players by setting the table for them off of DHOs and backdoor cuts. And with his level of aggression as a scorer in the post-season, he’s keeping defenses honest on his own as well. Defensively he makes life easier because he’s always in the right position at the right time, he’s always keeping the floor balanced in their zone, and above all else, his teammates trust that he has their back so they can play as aggressively as they’d like to.
There’s always been a level of skepticism about Bam’s abilities and impact, especially when it comes to the post-season. Many have wondered that his own offensive limitations as a scorer would hinder his ability to impact games at a high level in the playoffs — but that’s been far from the case.
Bam is the foundational bedrock for how this Heat team flows. Yes, Jimmy has been sensational, and without him, the Heat wouldn’t have their heartbeat. The role players have pitched in and have done their own part to keep defenses honest. Lowry has been excellent as a floor manager off of the bench.
But Adebayo is the brains of the operation. He is the connecting nerves of this Heat organism that helps keep the role players involved, allows his teammates to play to their strengths defensively, and allows for a level of dynamism that keeps Miami flexible.
It’s a thankless job, what Bam does for this Heat team on a consistent basis. And it probably deserves more love than it’s received.
Because without their 6-foot-9 center who can guard 1-through-5, make plays in the open court, and provide pin-point accuracy on his passes — this Heat team would not be able to shock the NBA world for 3 rounds in a row.