The NBA playoffs will force teams and players to adjust from series to series and game to game. Just ask Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro.
On the Miami Heat’s way to the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in the last three seasons, Adebayo and Herro were pushed out of their comfort zones in the second round of the playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers.
The switchable Adebayo went from guarding every player on the court to spending nearly the entirety of the final two games of the series as All-Star center and MVP runner-up Joel Embiid’s primary defender. And Herro went from averaging the most shot attempts per game on the team in the regular season to playing as more of a facilitator in the second round because the 76ers decided to relentlessly trap him for most of the series.
“That’s one of the discussions I had with him on the playoffs,” coach Erik Spoelstra said when asked about Herro, as the Heat took Saturday off before returning to practice on Sunday in preparation for Tuesday’s Game 1 of the East Finals at FTX Arena. “One game doesn’t necessarily lead to the next game. You just have to find a way to put your imprint to be able to help the team win.”
If they didn’t already know that, both the 24-year-old Adebayo and the 22-year-old Herro learned that lesson in the second round.
Adebayo, who finished fourth in the voting for the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award this season, played one defensive scheme to begin the series and then was used to anchor another defensive scheme to close the series. According to Second Spectrum, he switched 53 of the 102 screens he guarded from Games 1 through 4 but switched just four of the 52 screens he defended in Games 5 and 6.
The adjustment was made to keep Adebayo on Embiid as much as possible, as Adebayo fought through screens and played drop coverage as he stuck to Embiid. This was a drastic change for Adebayo, who switched more screens during the regular season than any other NBA player at 17.5 switches per 100 possessions.
“My rookie year, I played more of a zone,” Adebayo said when asked about the in-series adjustment. “But other than that, just going to back my rookie year when I was zoning a lot and not switching. It kind of put me back in that position.”
Adebayo excelled in both the Heat’s switching and drop schemes against the 76ers. According to NBA tracking stats, Embiid totaled just 28 points on 11-of-29 (37.9 percent) shooting from the field during the 129 possessions he was defended by Adebayo in the second round.
“It’s arguably the toughest cover at that position,” Spoelstra said of the job Adebayo did on Embiid. “Then to anchor our defense, to do multiple schemes all the time while he’s in the game and to be able to handle that and then to keep that competitive edge that really drives us. He’s the heart and soul of our team.”
Heat forward P.J. Tucker kept it simple when asked about the versatility Adebayo displayed while toggling between schemes against Embiid.
“It’s just Bam being a pretty good defender. There’s nothing else to say about it,” Tucker said. “That’s what he does, being able to play different schemes. That’s what makes good defenders good defenders. Being able to switch when needed, stay when needed and do whatever else is needed.”
As for Herro, his offensive numbers were down across the board in the second round because of the way the 76ers decided to defend him.
After finding the soft spots in Philadelphia’s drop coverage to average 21.5 points on 15-of-27 (55.6 percent) shooting from the field and 7-of-11 (63.6 percent) shooting from three-point range in Games 1 and 2, the 76ers opted to blitz the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year on pick-and-rolls and send consistent double teams his way whenever possible to get the ball out of his hands.
As a result, Herro averaged just 11.3 points on 18-of-47 (38.3 percent) shooting from the field and 3-of-16 (18.8 percent) shooting on threes over the final four games of the six-game series.
“It’s new for me. But I just continued to work through it, watching film and just getting repetitions,” Herro said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. Just seeing myself go through the double teams, the blitzes and things like that, and just working myself through it.”
Herro closed the regular season averaging a team-high 17 shot attempts per game. But he averaged just 11.2 shots per game over the final four games of the Heat’s second-round series with the 76ers scheming to limit his opportunities.
Herro eventually came to accept that forcing shots wasn’t the answer. Instead, he realized that the double teams meant more space for other Heat players on the court.
“I think he did a great job of accepting the blitz and making the right play out of it,” Heat star Jimmy Butler said. “It’s tough getting blitzed all the time. But I look at it as a compliment. Like you’re a really good player if they’re sending two people at you.”
It wasn’t easy, as the Heat’s offense seemed to bog down at times with Herro on the court in the second round. Miami scored 4.6 more points per 100 possessions when Herro wasn’t on the court in the final four games of the series.
If Herro sees that type of coverage again consistently in the playoffs, he’ll be better prepared.
“I got a lot of attention,” Herro said. “They threw different bodies at me, one or two guys at a time. But we have a bunch of great players on this team that can fill it up. If you take away me, then you got six or seven guys that are going to make you pay for that. They’ve got to pick their poison.”
Both Adebayo and Herro took away important lessons from the second round. Their responsibilities and role could change throughout the playoffs.
“It just depends on what the team needs,” Adebayo said.