Heat-76ers: Sidelined sniper Duncan Robinson is a hot topic, but cold shooting is just one of Miami’s problems
If you want to make the case that Duncan Robinson deserves game time, you can start with the Miami Heat’s first shot in Game 4 of their second-round series. In an effort to get Kyle Lowry started and exploit the Philadelphia 76ers drop coverage, they took him one screen down in a dribble pass with Bam Adebayo, but Lowry fended off the open 3:
Lowry is a great shooter, but he came back from a hamstring injury in the previous game and isn’t close to being fully healthy (he will miss Game 5 with a hamstring problem). He’s yet to make a 3-point shot in the series, and Miami as a team has shot 14 for 65 (21.5%) in both games at Wells Fargo Center. On Sunday, Lowry missed one of his patent 3 pull-ups in transition, one with Jimmy Butler screening him wide open and one with James Harden choosing to go under a screen:
Here’s an easy contrast: On first possession in their March 5 game against Philadelphia, the Heat knocked Robinson onto a shaky screen. He lets it fly from the same spot as Lowry, with Joel Embiid looking at it from the same angle, and he enters:
Robinson is one of the best shooters on earth, and he’s completely out of the rotation. Three weeks before his DNP-CD on Sunday, he opened the playoffs shooting 8-for-9 from deep and scoring 27 points in 23 minutes against the Atlanta Hawks. His agency celebrated the 19th anniversary of his 26-point performance in Game 5 of the 2020 NBA Finals on Monday with a tweet full of emoji and subtext. I wrote about Robinson after that game, noting how he scrambles defenses with off-ball movement — on one play he had two Los Angeles Lakers defensemen meet.
Philadelphia’s defense didn’t look the same fazed, at least when its 7-foot anchor was on the ground. He wasn’t afraid to play in the zone, trap Tyler Herro and go down against almost anyone else. Adebayo, whose two-man game with Robinson was once a staple of the Heat’s offense, struggled to create advantages against Embiid one-on-one, and on Sunday they put him on the court for every minute Embiid was seated.
Butler was down 40 points in 42 minutes in Game 4, but it wasn’t enough. Given how badly everyone shot, shouldn’t Coach Erik Spoelstra have put Robinson there?
“Obviously right now you know you’re looking at the percentage, that’s an easy conclusion,” Spoelstra said after the game. “But we still looked very good.”
Spoelstra said he thought about replacing Robinson. He acknowledged that Robinson could potentially help Adebayo. But he was more concerned about the other end of the floor.
“We’re a great 3-point shooting team, we just couldn’t take them down,” Spoelstra said. “The biggest story was not being able to defend them, disrupt them, keep them off the free throw line at key times. I think our offense probably would have been good enough to give us a real good chance, even the way we were shooting from 3. But we weren’t able to get the kind of consistent defensive stops we’re used to.
Both Lowry and Butler said they were getting good shots and were confident the 3 would go down in the next game. The film shows that Herro, Butler, Victor Oladipo and Gabe Vincent all missed open looks:
And PJ Tucker broadcast one from his office around the corner:
If the league’s make-or-miss thing remains unconvincing, it’s because Miami couldn’t consistently release Herro and Max Strus, and the Sixers don’t seem particularly concerned about whoever else is behind the game. ‘bow. Despite all that, however, the Heat scored 110.2 points per 100 possessions – not great, but much better than the disaster (89.8 per 100) that was Game 3. Miami had a 48-34 advantage in points in the paint and a 24-11 advantage in points on turnovers.
“Listen, we are proud that we can find different solutions to win,” Spoelstra said. “And this one, we felt like we could have pushed so we could put it in the grind, in the mud.”
The Heat sacrificed spacing for defensive versatility when they dropped Robinson from the starting lineup in late March, and again when they took him out of the rotation against Philadelphia. They could have given Robinson part of Oladipo’s 32 minutes on Sunday, but at what cost? You might disagree with Spoelstra’s assessment of Miami’s offense, but he’s unquestionably right when it comes to defense. He trended down all series and the Sixers scored 120.8 points per 100 possessions in Game 4.
On several occasions, Spoelstra spoke about the many late-game plays that kept the Heat at bay. The numbers are staggering: Philadelphia shot 13 for 17, including 6 for 8 3-pointers, with six seconds or less on the shot clock, by NBA.comby John Schuhmann and Second Spectrum. Among those were five daggers in the final six minutes: a Harden 3 pullback off Adebayo, a Harden 3 drive off Adebayo, a Harden 3 spot on Oladipo, a Tyrese Maxey lob to Tobias Harris after an offensive rebound and a Harden side step 3 against Oladipo.
“For the most part, defensively, we weren’t able to really impact them,” Spoelstra said. “Definitely not in the first half. They were in good rhythm and able to hit everything they wanted, including their role players. We were able to disrupt that kind of rhythm a bit more in the second half. , but again, those games at the end of the clock were really crippling.”
The Sixers scored 112.4 points per 100 possessions in the half court Sunday, a mark that would have led the league by a wide margin in the regular season. If Spoelstra was primarily concerned with solving this problem, it is understandable that he did not turn to Robinson, whom Harden would have targeted immediately.
However, it’s also reasonable to ask whether the trade-off was worth it. Maybe Robinson would have knocked down a couple straight 3s, giving the Heat a boost of energy and more room for error on defense. They could have put it on when Harden went to the bench. They could have put it on and played more zone defense. If he has a chance and gets hot, maybe Philadelphia will be moved to play more minutes with defensive specialist Matisse Thybulle, damaging his spacing and making it easier for Miami to save.
Offensive versus defensive trade-offs are “what every team has to deal with in the playoffs,” Spoelstra said, speaking generally, not just Robinson. But not all teams cast aside a 6-7 guy with a lightning-quick release who signed a $90 million contract last summer and rocked the playoffs. Robinson logged more minutes for the Heat than anyone but Herro and Lowry in the regular season, and he played just 55 seconds of foul time in the second round. This is an extreme change, even for a player who has already been demoted.
Basketball is not the most balanced team competition. If Spoelstra can’t find a place for Robinson, the misses pile up and Miami can’t get out of this series, the riddle will become even stronger. With Lowry sidelined for Tuesday’s Game 5, is Robinson more important or less viable? If Harden is already going after Herro, is it that important to give him another target? These questions do not have black and white answers.
Spoelstra knows as well as anyone how quickly Robinson can catch fire. He would rather win lousy, though, than lose with a prettier attack. And he described Strus, Herro and Vincent as “flammable” in their own right.
“They see a couple falling, it can turn into four, five, six like that,” Spoelstra said, snapping his fingers. “And that’s what I want our guys to think about. I want them to be gunslingers, to come out shooting.”