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Miami doesn't have anyone left who can dribble
Imagine driving a car with no steering wheel.
Imagine barbequing without sauce.
Imagin typing on a kyboard without th lttr aftr “d.”
That is what the Miami Heat are trying to do in the absence of almost their entire guard rotation.
Dribbling is a fundamental aspect of basketball. Can a team play without dribbling? Sure; passing can technically get the ball from point A to point B (although passing and dribbling skills are correlated). But it sure is a lot harder to set up an offense without being able to bounce the ball on the ground.
Unfortunately, that’s precisely the situation the Heat find themselves in. First-round injuries to starter Tyler Herro and backup Victor Oladipo knocked out two of Miami’s four playoff-roster ballhandling guards, but newly-promoted starter Gabe Vincent and the Frankenstein’s monster version of Kyle Lowry, back from the dead, both stepped up their games considerably. With the help of Jimmy Butler, the central offensive hub, and Bam Adebayo, an above-average playmaking center, the two guards were able to hold the fort down.
But everyone knew the Heat were playing with fire. Any injury to either guard, no matter how minor, would have dire consequences. So when Vincent turned his ankle in the fourth quarter of Game 4, things looked grim for Miami. The Celtics have blown Miami out of the water in the five-ish quarters since.
To make matters worse, Kyle Lowry, the lone ambulatory guard on Miami’s playoff roster, was seen holding his hand in apparent pain throughout the second half of Game 5. After an abysmal regular season on both ends, Lowry looked rejuvenated throughout the playoffs as the leader of the second unit. But Thursday night, he looked slow and tentative. He just straight-up lost his dribble several times in a blowout Game 5 loss:
If Gabe Vincent isn’t close to 100% by, uh, tomorrow, the Heat may very well enter a damn-near must-win Game 6 with zero healthy guards.
Per Cleaning the Glass, the Heat had just 140 total non-garbage-time possessions without any of Tyler Herro, Kyle Lowry, Gabe Vincent, or Victor Oladipo on the floor (out of nearly 7,800 total possessions). The vast majority of those occurred when the Heat had other guards available (none of whom made the playoff roster). Basketball teams aren’t designed to run without ballhandlers.
Look at how different the distribution of dribbles became after the Heat’s injuries1:
That is a drastic shift in responsibilities. Butler and Lowry were the only two of the Heat’s top-five dribblers available Thursday night, and we already mentioned Lowry’s woes. Just look at how much more ballhandling Bam Adebayo, Caleb Martin, and Duncan Robinson had to do!
Adebayo responded to his increased responsibilities with a whopping six turnovers. Like the floorboard creak at the start of a horror movie, Miami’s very first possession of the night foreshadowed terrible things to come:
Add it all up, and the Heat had 16 giveaways on Thursday night (and Boston NEVER forces turnovers, as the broadcast crew repeatedly pointed out; they were the fifth-worst turnover-forcing team in the regular season).
Despite Butler’s dramatic uptick in ballhandling time, he only accumulated ten field goal attempts as Boston threw everything but the kitchen sink at him. Boston’s game plan was solid: limit Jimmy Butler and hug Miami’s shooters at the three-point line, making the ancillary characters beat them off the bounce.
It worked. The Heat actually shot the ball well, and Miami’s offense made a big run in garbage time, so the final numbers look more respectable than they should. But turnovers piled up and ultimately cost Miami any chance of keeping pace with an incendiary Boston squad that couldn’t miss from deep.
The Heat will undoubtedly emphasize taking care of the ball in Game 6, but it’s a lot to ask of players who aren’t used to dribbling so much to assume major playmaking responsibilities. Jimmy and Lowry have reached the upper limits on how many times they can pound the rock, and Bam and Martin are likely a little overtaxed with this much dribbling. Martin has been very effective as a play finisher this postseason, but he’s not a point guard. Likewise, Bam has a nice handle for a big man but shouldn’t be doing as much dribbling in the halfcourt as he’s had to do.
Duncan Robinson was a rare bright spot. He’s repeatedly beaten playoff defenses off the bounce to an astonishing degree (remember this dusting of Milwaukee’s All-Defensive guard Jrue Holiday from Round 1?).
But multiple role players will need to take star turns in Game 6 for Miami to have a chance — and stars, by and large, must dribble the basketball.
Miami’s problems in these last two losses are plentiful and deep. Boston’s offense and defense have both ticked up a notch right as the Heat are starting to feel the hurt from being down so many bodies. So if Gabe Vincent and Kyle Lowry don’t return to their early-playoffs form in Game 6, Miami could find itself on the wrong side of history.
Data from NBA.com. It is worth pointing out that the regular season per-game averages obfuscate things like changing minutes and roles, other injuries, etc.