MIAMI — A roster full of question marks benefited the Heat last season.
Miami caught opponents by surprise with players who had never been able to show off their full skill sets before. Whether it was Dion Waiters, James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, Wayne Ellington, Rodney McGruder, Willie Reed or Luke Babbitt, teams didn’t know what to expect from many of the Heat’s players.
But after Miami posted an incredible 30-11 record over the second half of last season, that element of surprise is gone.
Opponents scouted Miami’s drive-and-kick offense and have made the appropriate adjustments to stop it by moving extra defenders in the paint. With teams now prepared for Miami’s style, the Heat (11-12) are struggling to generate efficient offense with the league’s fourth-worst offensive rating (scoring 100.7 points per 100 possessions) this season.
“I think last year, it was just they didn’t know,” forward James Johnson said Tuesday before the Heat traveled to San Antonio for Wednesday’s game against the Spurs. “They really didn’t know anybody. It was journeymen, whatever you guys called us at the time, moving from team to team. So I don’t think they really had a good grasp on who we were or what we could really do, and now they do. It’s just a learning experience.
“It’s respect. I count it as respect. Teams scout, coaches scout and they have a game plan. If the game plan is that, to do different things to pack the paint and to keep us out of what we do, we just got to learn and we got to move kind of quickly.”
Even though the Heat are still driving to the basket more than almost every other team in the NBA, those drives aren’t ending with many clean looks this season. Miami ranks second with 52.2 drives per game, but are making just 46.5 percent of its shots on penetration attempts compared to the 50.8 percent it shot on drives during last season’s 30-11 run.
In addition to the adjustments opponents have made, Waiters believes the Heat’s offensive chemistry is playing a part in their struggles.
“Hell no,” Waiters said when asked if the Heat’s drives to the basket have been as clean as last season’s. “… I just tell guys last year what I got a lot was Rodney McGruder on that cut because I saw how they were playing him and that’s why Rodney was able to get so many baskets — that slot cut. We’re doing it now, but not right off the bat. We’ve just got to get used to it.
“Like I said, the lineup is different and things like that. We were just so used to playing with each other last year, we just knew what to do. We didn’t have to say nothing. I knew Rodney cuts. I knew Luke was going to be where Luke was going to be at. Everything was on a string. Right now, we’re still figuring that out. Guys’ games are different. Once we click and we start clicking like when we get to it and how we’re going to click, man, it makes everything else easier. Guys aren’t going to be able to pack the paint or guard me as much as they’re doing now.”
One thing that could help take defenders away from the basket is the Heat’s 3-point shooting. Miami is averaging the fourth-most 3-point shot attempts at 32.6 per game, which puts it on pace to attempt a franchise record 2,670 threes this season.
But the Heat just aren’t making enough 3-pointers to force defenses to respect their shooters. Miami ranks 19th in 3-point shooting percentage (35.9 percent).
“Like I tell guys, like Justise [Winslow], you’ve got to be ready,” Waiters said of the Heat’s 3-point shooters. “You’ve got to shoot the ball and shoot the ball with confidence, too. Same with [Josh Richardson]. If you got it, shoot it. I tell Kelly Olynyk all the time — shoot the ball. That’s a luxury. Kelly is shooting 48 percent from three. Kelly, you’ve got to shoot it. Coach tells you shoot the ball. Shoot, I wish I had that luxury. … Last year Wayne would pump fake and he would have to run a suicide [drill]. You’ve got to shoot the ball. You all make it easier for us and open it up too [when you shoot].”
Now that opponents have adjusted to the Heat, the Heat must find a way to adjust to their opponents.
“For myself, it’s a privilege and it’s just something that you want,” Johnson said, “to be on a team’s scouting report and to be somebody that they focus on throughout the game to keep you from doing things that you help the team win with. It’s my first time in a situation like this. For me, it’s just a learning experience to just figure out the best ways to put my prints on the game without doing what they want us to do.”