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X-Factors In The East: Kyle Lowry And P.J. Tucker Are In Miami For The Playoffs

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After a disappointing 2020-21 season that ended in a first-round sweep at the hands of the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks, the Miami Heat were one of the league’s most aggressive teams during the summer of 2021.

Despite entering the offseason over the salary cap, the Heat were able to finagle their way into acquiring one of the top available free agents, securing Kyle Lowry in a sign-and-trade transaction with the Toronto Raptors. But Lowry wasn’t the only important free agent the Heat added; they also brought in P.J. Tucker on a two-year deal, simultaneously improving their roster and depriving the defending champs of an important cog in their rotation.

Fast-forward to early March, and the Heat are 44-22 and hold a three-game lead in the Eastern Conference. Their Pythagorean wins, which is based off of point differential, is consistent with that record, and there are other encouraging signs that Miami has rejoined the inner circle of title contenders. The Heat rank inside the top 10 on both sides of the ball: seventh on offense, sixth on defense. They have the league’s fifth-best net rating, and they also rank fifth in Basketball-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, which adjusts point differential for strength of opponent.

Of course, none of that is why the Heat acquired Lowry and Tucker in the first place. The pair of signings were clearly made with an eye toward the playoffs — you don’t sign a 35-year-old point guard and a 36-year-old forward who have a combined 170 games worth of playoff experience (and a title apiece) just to raise your team’s regular-season baseline. You did it so they can help Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and company get over the top. 

Lowry has been in and out of the lineup this season because of an unspecified personal issue, but when on the floor, he has been the type of force the Heat expected him to be — give or take a down year in the 3-point-shooting department and a higher-than-expected turnover rate. Our RAPTOR wins above replacement metric pegs him as a top-40-ish player this season, worth plus-2.9 points per 100 possessions to Miami’s scoring margin. Other metrics view him similarly: ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus has him worth plus-3.08 points per 100, and Estimated Plus-Minus has him at plus-2.4.

Beyond the all-in-one value metrics, Lowry brings two things the Heat need offensively: someone to organize the offense when Butler is off the floor, and a kick in the ass to get out in transition when they’re struggling to get things going in the half court. Lowry’s usage rate is at its lowest point in more than a decade, but he doesn’t need to use the possessions himself to get the team into proper gear.

When Lowry plays with Butler, he essentially acts as a co-lead ball-handler, splitting time of possession almost equally, according to Second Spectrum. With Butler out of the game, though, Lowry goes back to having the ball in his hands at a level closer to what he was used to in Toronto over the past few years.

Miami has scored only 1.8 points per 100 possessions less efficiently in Lowry-only minutes than Butler-only minutes, according to PBP Stats, and will need to continue to avoid a drop-off when the playoffs roll around.

The Heat tend to get bogged down in the half court on occasion, which is why it’s crucial that they get out and run whenever they can. (Their half-court offense completely fell apart against the Bucks last year.) They’re No. 1 in the league in transition efficiency this season, according to Cleaning the Glass, but only 18th in the share of their possessions that come on the break. Miami runs far more often with Lowry on the floor (16 percent of possessions, the equivalent of a top-10 rate) than when he’s on the bench (13.9 percent, a bottom-seven rate). In the crucible of the playoffs, where the game slows down just a bit, those extra transition possessions — and the boosted efficiency they bring — matter a great deal.

Also of great importance is that Lowry is a far better defender than his predecessor at the point guard position, Goran Dragić. He’s one of the NBA’s strongest guards regardless of size, and he has shown over the years that he’s capable of executing whatever scheme his coach wants to utilize. Coming from Nick Nurse’s shapeshifting defense prepared him well for playing for Erik Spoelstra, who is also one of the league’s preeminent defensive chameleons.

With Miami’s list of potential playoff opponents featuring guards like James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Zach LaVine, Darius Garland, Caris LeVert, Fred VanVleet, LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Kyrie Irving, Seth Curry and Trae Young, having a defender who is a true positive — and a flexible chess piece capable of handling himself in a zone or on switches — helps a whole lot.

Tucker will be responsible for even heavier defensive lifting when the postseason rolls around. He has already faced a brutally tough slate of opponents: He ranks 16th among 226 players with at least 1,000 minutes played in Bball-Index’s Matchup Difficulty metric. He’s also one of just five players among that same group of 226 to defend all five positions on at least 14 percent of his defensive possessions.

When the Heat played the new-look 76ers last weekend, Tucker spent most of his time defending Maxey. Lowry was out for that game, but so was Harden. Either way, it seems likely that Tucker will draw one of those two matchups should the Heat tangle with the Sixers in the playoffs (with Duncan Robinson and/or Tyler Herro chilling out on whichever of Matisse Thybulle, Danny Green or Furkan Korkmaz is in the game), just as the Bucks had Tucker defend Kevin Durant (the Eastern Conference semifinals) and Devin Booker (Finals) during last year’s title run. Given his raison d’etre, Tucker is also likely to draw the task of defending Durant should the Heat face the Nets, Giannis Antetokounmpo or Khris Middleton if they play the Bucks, LaVine or DeMar DeRozan if they play the Bulls, and Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown if they face the Celtics.

Tucker proved up to the task last spring — as much as anyone can be up to the task of defending the world’s best scorers, at least. His combination of agility and physicality allows him to match up with wings of almost any size, which is part of the reason the Heat targeted him in the first place. Having multiple options to defend those “apex predator” wings is typically a prerequisite for making it through the playoffs and to the NBA Finals. Jae Crowder leaving Miami for Phoenix before last season played a significant role in the Suns advancing to the Finals while Miami went home early.

One change Miami has made for Tucker this year is involving him more directly in its offense than his most recent teams have. He’s up to 54 halfcourt touches per 100 possessions, according to Second Spectrum, compared with just 40.4 last season. He hadn’t averaged more than 48 per 100 since the 2016-17 season. His rate of involvement in dribble handoffs has doubled, and after he had 48 off-ball screens set for him all of last season, he’s already worked off 119 of them this year.

His usage rate has accordingly jumped from total non-threat (5.8 percent in his 20 regular-season games with Milwaukee last season) to at least keep an eye on him (11.9 percent) levels, and he’s on track for the highest assist rate of his career. He set or tied single-game highs in both assists and free-throw attempts, and he came pretty close in points. On top of all that, he’s having the best 3-point shooting season of his career, knocking down 44.4 percent of his 3.7 attempts per 36 minutes. Despite involving him in more direct actions than ever, the Heat have still been able to ensure that a career-high 89 percent of his triples have been attempted from the corners, where he is at his best.

What Lowry and Tucker have brought the Heat during the regular season to date has not necessarily been the driving force in propelling them to the conference’s best record. Lowry has missed nearly a quarter of the team’s games and has been more of a complementary player than ever before when active. Tucker has always been a role player, albeit one whose role is now more central during a playoff run than the regular season.

For the Heat to get where they want to go, they’ll of course need Butler and Adebayo at the top of their games. As we saw last season, though, that’s not enough to get them over the top. They’ll need the two wily vets they targeted last offseason to come through in a big way as well.   

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