The Miami Heat have been no strangers to championship formulas under Erik Spoelstra. Since 2008-09, Spoelstra’s first season as head coach following the legendary Pat Riley’s decision to step away from the sidelines, only the San Antonio Spurs sport a better win percentage than Miami.
But since the Heatles years brought the franchise two titles, Miami has taken a much different approach to team building. Its Big Three has been replaced by a seemingly unending list of contributors surrounding its foundational stars. The Heat tied for the league lead with 10 players logging at least 1,000 minutes for the same team this past regular season as they adjusted to extended absences from Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry and Sixth Man of the Year winner Tyler Herro, who each missed double-digit games this season.
And they’ve continued to adjust during their second-round series against Philadelphia, even while Butler is in the midst of one of the best individual playoff runs in franchise history. With Lowry continuing to be in and out of the lineup as he struggles with a hamstring injury, Spoelstra has had to rely on his depth: P.J. Tucker, Victor Oladipo, Dewayne Dedmon, Gabe Vincent and Max Strus have each taken on key roles for the Heat, who are just one game away from the Eastern Conference finals.
The depth is most apparent on defense, where the role players really shine. The Heat entered the postseason ranked fourth leaguewide in defensive efficiency, marking the team’s best finish since Spoelstra’s first title run as head coach in 2011-12. And in Tuesday night’s Game 5, they clamped down, holding the Sixers to only 85 points — their lowest total in this postseason.
Tucker played a crucial role in that stingy performance, taking the lion’s share of half-court matchups against James Harden. Tucker faced The Beard on 34 matchups Tuesday and held him to just 6 points. Tucker has also regularly been called on to take on Joel Embiid during this series; he has spent 63 percent of his defensive half-court possessions on one of the Sixers’ two biggest stars.
For Tucker, tall assignments are just one part of his reputation for doing everything it takes to win a possession, game or series. The veteran, who earned a ring last season with Milwaukee, leads the league in playoff minutes over the past five years and remains an expert at making each of them count. He’s defended a league-high 534 jumpers in the last five playoffs while ranking seventh among all players in shots defended from the paint. Tucker’s invaluable blend of hustling hard, defensive versatility and floor-spacing grants Miami an elite defender capable of holding things down when Adebayo sits.
Oladipo has also played a key role in keeping Harden under wraps during this series. The two have faced off in 64 matchups with Philly in its half-court offense, and Oladipo has held Harden to an effective field-goal percentage of 36.7 percent.
Oladipo, who led the NBA in steals in 2018, journeyed a long road before working his way into Miami’s rotation. His return from a quad injury dating back to 2019 saw him closing the regular season with his first 40-point game since 2017. Despite totaling only 52 appearances in the previous two years combined, Oladipo has proved himself ready to contribute to a playoff run.
“We just really wanted to be open-minded,” Spoelstra said recently about Miami’s process with Oladipo. “We were thrilled to be able to acquire him. We knew there would be a process. It was put on pause for a long time, but he just persevered. … And if you would’ve thought five years ago that we could acquire Vic and add him to a group like this, you would have said ‘not a chance.’”
Strus, Vincent and Dedmon are all undrafted players who found their way into a potential championship rotation at the right time. The three have made contributions on both ends of the floor. Strus and Vincent, in particular, have both played crucial roles in Miami’s most-used lineup against Philadelphia. That duo plus Butler, Adebayo and Tucker has accumulated a net rating of +40.0 over 47 minutes together in the conference semifinals.
After single-digit outputs in each of the first four outings against Philly, Strus scored 19 points in Game 5. Even more impressive? His 10 rebounds gave him his first career double-double in 121 total NBA games. Vincent enjoyed his own breakout scoring performance during Game 5 while playing a crucial role in limiting Harden to just 5 points on drives to the basket, The Beard’s second-lowest single-game total over the last seven postseasons.
Though injuries have undermined Embiid’s impact in the series, he’s still a force to be reckoned with, and Miami has given Embiid no shortage of contested looks. Even when Adebayo takes a breather, the Heat’s bench comes through: Despite missing Game 4 with an illness, Dedmon has tied Adebayo and Butler for the team lead with nine shot contests against Embiid in this series.
Dedmon has been particularly effective when deployed alongside Tucker. The Heat have a net rating of +23.5 in the 35 playoff minutes when Dedmon and Tucker have spelled Adebayo. Over the course of this season, Dedmon collected 112 shot contests from the restricted area, nearly matching his total from the previous two seasons combined. Including the playoffs, Embiid’s effective field-goal percentage when guarded by Dedmon this year sits at just 34.8 percent.
No matter the lineup from one day to the next, Spoelstra remains unwavering in his trust in any Heat player to step up and win the next possession. He said as much before Miami lost consecutive road outings in Games 3 and 4, paving the way for Tuesday’s bounceback victory.
“You have to have the right kind of guys that are about winning and are willing to work through a process of it, ” Spoelstra said after the Heat’s Game 2 win. “It’s not going to happen through osmosis. Now, the last three months, we’ve been able to work through this, even though it hasn’t necessarily been on the wood. We’ve had film sessions, shootarounds, practices where we’ve been able to work different combinations and put together our menu and how we’re trying to maximize each other’s strengths.”
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