NBA playoffs: The rise of Bam Adebayo

·9 min read

Pay attention to Erik Spoelstra’s news conferences for long enough, and you’ll find yourself picking up on certain terms that tend to crop up over and over. “Spoisms” some have called them.

“Skirmishes” and “multiple efforts,” “get to our game” and “ignitability,” a slew of others: They’re turns of phrase that one of the sport’s best head coaches and most scrupulously attentive tacticians returns to as he tries to express precisely what he wants and values — what he’s seeing and feeling, what he’s looking for out of his Miami Heat.

One Spoism uttered multiple times during Miami’s second-round series against the New York Knicks, and that stretches back a lot farther than that? “Whatever’s necessary. Whatever’s required.” It’s a mantra of adaptability, perfect for the utilitarian environment of the NBA playoffs, where the level of competition is too ferocious to be precious about what you’re willing to do in pursuit of a W.

It’s a hand-in-glove fit for the vaunted hard-nosed “Heat culture” that has defined the franchise ever since Pat Riley went south for the summer and never came back. It’s the North Star of a roster that, as you’ve surely heard by now, features a league-high nine undrafted players — guys who’ve dug their careers out of the mud, earning their way into rubbing (and sometimes exchanging) elbows with highly touted prospects through sheer tenacity and competitive will.

It’s also probably why Spo loves Bam Adebayo so much.

Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo (13) moves the ball down court in the first half of game 1 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference finals playoff series against the Boston Celtics in Boston, Wednesday, May 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo (13) brings the ball up the court in the first half of Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics in Boston, Wednesday, May 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

There are players in the NBA who can guard star-level offensive talents at all five positions, and toggle between a handful of defensive schemes — switching, dropping, blitzing, icing, show-and-recover, zone, you name it — without missing a beat. There are players who can bring the ball up the court and initiate the offense, serve as an offensive hub from the elbows, work either end of the pick-and-roll, splash midrange jumpers and get downhill to attack the rim. There are players who can control games without putting up crooked numbers, and ones who can put up crooked numbers when they’re needed.

There aren’t a lot of players who can do all of that, though. One of them is named Jimmy Butler, whose dominance throughout this postseason has only burnished his standing as one of the (and maybe the) best two-way players in the sport. Adebayo, though, is proving that he’s another — a relentless standard-bearer ready and able to give the Heat whatever’s necessary, whatever’s required, on any given night.

“Whatever I said about Jimmy, you say that about Bam,” Spoelstra told reporters after Miami took Game 1 in Boston, setting the Heat on the path to wholly breaking the Celtics over the course of these conference finals. “Because he does it on both ends, and he's not defined by that final number on the box score.”

That final number — the points column — is the one that many observers look at first. Adebayo’s production in that area rarely pops off of the page: He’s scored 30 or more points 20 times in 478 career games, topped 40 points just once and only averaged 20 points per game for the first time this season. This has, at times, led to grumbling from fans and pundits alike, wondering why a player with such evident physical and athletic tools doesn’t dominate offensively in the same loud and obvious ways that other superstar centers have over the years.

Rather than questioning why Adebayo isn’t dominating interior defenders on his way to 28 points per game, though, maybe we’d be better served wondering how a draft prospect pegged by many evaluators as an “energy big man” with an “unrefined” offensive game who needed to “learn to play within his skill set” has, in the space of six seasons, turned into a player capable of doing all of this with the ball in his hands:

“I understand the narrative [about Miami turning undrafted players into rotation contributors], but some of our best player development projects have also been lottery picks,” Spoelstra told reporters before Game 1. “You can make a case that Bam is one of the best examples of that.”

You can see it in the way Adebayo’s usage rate has increased year over year. As a rookie, when he was primarily a catch-and-dunk finisher coming off the bench behind Hassan Whiteside, it was just under 16%. Two years later, when he stepped into the starting lineup at the 4 before making the full-time move to center that fueled Miami’s run through the bubble, it cracked 20% — proof of Spoelstra’s increased confidence in the young big man’s ability to handle a greater playmaking workload.

"He's going through exploration," Spoelstra told ESPN’s Zach Lowe during that season. "The only way to get better is experience. I want him to be a different player six weeks from now, three months from now. And then I'll move the goal posts again."

Adebayo earned his first All-Star and All-Defensive Team selections that season, establishing himself as the second-best player on a team that made the Finals. The exploration has only continued since: This season, his second All-Star campaign, Adebayo’s usage rose to more than 25%, and he trailed only Butler and lead ball-handlers Kyle Lowry and Tyler Herro on the Heat in touches per game.

You can see it in Adebayo’s confidence in the work he’s put in on his shot, specifically the short jumpers against drop coverage that defenses will give him in favor of protecting the rim and sticking close to the arc. I wrote in what quickly became a laughable preview of Bucks-Heat that Adebayo had struggled with those shots against Milwaukee in the 2021 playoffs, but that he’d led the NBA in shots taken and made in the paint but outside the restricted area during the regular season. That has largely held up in the postseason, with Adebayo comfortably stepping into those looks and shooting 44% on them.

“I've gotten so much better since last year — making reads, being aggressive, knowing the time to score,” Adebayo said after Game 1 of the conference finals. “Just the whole overall of the game, I feel like I've gotten better. So it's a different me playing than it was last year.”

He’s also grown when it comes to creating his own looks. Adebayo drove to the basket more than five times per game during the regular season, a career-high, and has maintained that level of rim pressure in the playoffs. Attacks in isolation accounted for nearly 12% of his offensive possessions this season, according to Synergy Sports, up from 2.5% in his first season; a career-high 39.9% of his field goals this season were unassisted, 10% higher than his rookie campaign.

That comfort was on display in Game 2, when the Celtics — having been burned by bringing extra help on Butler and Adebayo in Game 1 — decided to dial back the pressure, stay at home on Miami’s shooters and force the Heat’s stars to cook one-on-one. Butler did, to the tune of 27 points on 12-for-25 shooting with 6 assists.

So did Adebayo, who repeatedly attacked the paint en route to drawing nine fouls and shooting a postseason-best 8-of-8 at the foul line. He also dished nine assists — six of them to Duncan Robinson — against a Boston defense often content to allow him to survey the floor from the top of the key. He finished with 22 points, with the last two coming after summarily discarding Al Horford for an offensive rebound and putback dunk in the final minute:

That aggression and physicality carried over into the Game 3 annihilation, which saw Adebayo attempt only five field goals in 25 minutes, but he still made Boston’s defenders — whether Horford and Robert Williams III in straight-up matchups, or wings like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum on switches — feel the full weight of his presence:

“Spo gave me ultimate clarity: ‘Be you,’” Adebayo told reporters after Game 2. “For me, that's simple enough. He wants me to be aggressive, and he wants me to score.”

That’s just it, though: While Spoelstra wants Adebayo to be aggressive and to score, he also wants — Miami also needs — everything else he can do.

The box-outs that effectively neutralized the Knicks’ rampaging offensive rebounding in Round 2. The stifling shot contests that have held opponents to 9-for-38 shooting in the fourth quarter in this postseason. The ability to help unlock Robinson in the dribble handoffs that were once a staple of the Heat’s offense, that have decreased in frequency over the last three years and that have roared back with a vengeance against the Celtics.

The end-to-end pushes to hunt early offense in transition. The bring-the-ball-up possessions late that lift a rim protector out of the paint and allow Miami to move Butler and Lowry off the ball, where their screening and cutting can scramble coverages. The thread-the-needle finds from the high post, and the smart reads out of double-teams that a “phenomenal passer” needs to nail to make a defense pay for putting two on the ball. (Cue Lowry’s bulging eyes.)

Butler’s penchant for turning crunch time into an opportunity to rip off a face-melting guitar solo has, understandably, earned most of the headlines throughout Miami’s playoff run. But without Adebayo providing the steady backbeat behind Butler’s swashbuckling brilliance, the Heat wouldn’t be here.

“He has to have his fingerprints all over this competition,” Spoelstra said during the Knicks series. (There’s another Spoism.) “And the way he does it is very similar to the way Jimmy does it. … There are massive challenges for him — to be able to defend everybody, anybody, and all the schemes, and then offensively, you know, all the scoring, the facilitating, all of that. But that's what he wants.”

To whom much is given, much is required. Adebayo’s ability to provide it — whatever’s required, whatever’s necessary — is a huge reason why Miami’s one win away from pushing one of the most stunning postseason runs in NBA history all the way back to the Finals.