If you want to make a case that Duncan Robinson deserves playing time, you could start with the Miami Heat’s first shot in Game 4 of their second-round series. In an effort to get Kyle Lowry going and exploit the Philadelphia 76ers‘ drop coverage, they run him off a down screen into a dribble-handoff with Bam Adebayo, but Lowry back-rims the open 3:
Lowry is an excellent shooter, but he returned from a hamstring injury in the previous game and is not close to fully healthy (he will miss Game 5 because of the hamstring problem). He has yet to make a 3-point shot in the series, and Miami as a team shot 14 for 65 (21.5 percent) in the two games at Wells Fargo Center. On Sunday, Lowry missed one of his patented pull-up 3s in transition, one with Jimmy Butler screening him wide open and one with James Harden electing to go under a screen:
Here’s an easy contrast: On the first possession of their March 5 game against Philadelphia, the Heat run Robinson off a stagger screen. He lets it fly from the same spot Lowry did, with Joel Embiid watching from the same angle, and it goes in:
Robinson is one of the best shooters walking the earth, and he’s completely out of the rotation. Three weeks before his DNP-CD on Sunday, he opened the playoffs by shooting 8 for 9 from deep and scoring 27 points in 23 minutes against the Atlanta Hawks. On Monday, his agency celebrated the 19-month anniversary of his 26-point performance in Game 5 of the 2020 NBA Finals with a tweet full of emoji and subtext. I wrote about Robinson after that game, noting how he scrambles defenses with off-ball movement — on one play, he made two Los Angeles Lakers defenders run into each other.
Philadelphia’s defense has not looked similarly flummoxed, at least when its 7-foot anchor has been on the floor. It has been unafraid to play zone, to trap Tyler Herro and to drop against almost anybody else. Adebayo, whose two-man game with Robinson used to be a staple of the Heat’s attack, has struggled to create advantages against Embiid one-on-one, and on Sunday they put him on the court for every minute that Embiid sat.
Butler dropped 40 points in 42 minutes in Game 4, but it wasn’t enough. Given how poorly everybody else has been shooting, shouldn’t coach Erik Spoelstra have put Robinson out there?
“Obviously right now you know you look at the percentage, that’s an easy conclusion,” Spoelstra said post-game. “But we still had some really good looks.”
Spoelstra said that he thought about subbing Robinson in. He acknowledged that Robinson could potentially help Adebayo. But he was more concerned about the other end of the floor.
“We’re a great 3-point shooting team, we just weren’t able to knock those down,” Spoelstra said. “The bigger story was not being able to defend them, disrupt them, keep them off the free-throw line at key moments. I think our offense probably would have been good enough to give ourselves a real good chance, even the way we were shooting from 3. But we weren’t able to get the kind of consistent defensive stops that we’re accustomed to.”
Lowry and Butler both said they were getting good shots and were confident that the 3s would fall in the next game. The film shows that Herro, Butler, Victor Oladipo and Gabe Vincent all missed wiiiiiiiiiiide-open looks:
And P.J. Tucker airballed one from his corner office:
If the make-or-miss-league stuff remains unconvincing, it is because Miami could not consistently free up Herro and Max Strus, and the Sixers don’t appear to be particularly concerned about anybody else behind the arc. Despite all of that, though, the Heat scored 110.2 points per 100 possessions — not great, but much better than the catastrophe (89.8 per 100) that was Game 3. Miami had a 48-34 advantage in points in the paint and a 24-11 advantage in points off turnovers.
“Look, we pride ourselves in being able to find different solutions to win,” Spoelstra said. “And this one, we felt like we could have pushed to be able to get this one in the grind, in the mud.”
The Heat sacrificed spacing for defensive versatility when they took Robinson out of the starting lineup in late March, and again when they removed him from the rotation against Philadelphia. They could have given Robinson some of Oladipo’s 32 minutes on Sunday, but at what cost? You might disagree with Spoelstra’s assessment of Miami’s offense, but he’s indisputably correct about the defense. It has been trending downward all series, and the Sixers scored 120.8 points per 100 possessions in Game 4.
Repeatedly, Spoelstra brought up the numerous end-of-clock plays that kept the Heat at bay. The numbers are staggering: Philadelphia shot 13 for 17, including 6 for 8 from 3-point range, with six or fewer seconds on the shot clock, per NBA.com‘s John Schuhmann and Second Spectrum. Among those were five daggers in the final six minutes: A Harden step-back 3 against Adebayo, a Harden drive against Adebayo, a Harden spot-up 3 over Oladipo, a lob from Tyrese Maxey to Tobias Harris after an offensive rebound and a Harden side-step 3 against Oladipo.
“For the most part defensively we weren’t able to really impact them,” Spoelstra said. “Certainly not in the first half. They were in a great rhythm and able to get to whatever they wanted to get to, including their role players. We were able to disrupt that kind of rhythm a little bit more in the second half, but again those plays at the end of the clock were really crippling.”
The Sixers scored 112.4 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt on Sunday, a mark that would have led the league by a wide margin in the regular season. If Spoelstra was primarily concerned about fixing this problem, it is understandable that he didn’t turn to Robinson, whom Harden would have targeted immediately.
It’s also reasonable, however, to wonder if the trade-off might have been worth it. Maybe Robinson would have knocked down a couple of consecutive 3s, giving the Heat a boost of energy and more room for error on defense. They could have put him in when Harden went to the bench. They could have put him in and played more zone defense. If he gets a chance and gets hot, maybe Philadelphia will be moved to play defensive specialist Matisse Thybulle more minutes, damaging its spacing and making it easier for Miami to get stops.
Offense-versus-defense compromises are “what each team has to manage during the playoffs,” Spoelstra said, speaking generally, not just about Robinson. But not every team has shelved a 6-7 guy with a lightning-fast release who signed a $90 million contract last summer and has swung playoff games. Robinson logged more minutes for the Heat than anybody but Herro and Lowry in the regular season, and he has played only 55 seconds of garbage time in the second round. This is an extreme shift, even for a player who has already been demoted.
Basketball is not a most-balanced-team competition. If Spoelstra doesn’t find a place for Robinson, the misses keep piling up and Miami can’t get out of this series, the second-guessing will get even louder. With Lowry sidelined for Tuesday’s Game 5, is Robinson more important or less viable? If Harden is already picking on Herro, is it that big of a deal to give him another target? These questions don’t have black-and-white answers.
Spoelstra knows as well as anybody how fast Robinson can catch fire. He would rather win ugly, though, than lose with a prettier offense. And he described Strus, Herro and Vincent as “ignitable” in their own right.
“They see a couple go down, that can turn into four, five, six like that,” Spoelstra said, snapping his fingers. “And that’s what I want our guys thinking about. I want them being gunslingers, coming out firing.”