The Miami Heat faced a huge challenge when trying to improve on a season that finished with an NBA Finals appearance inside the bubble.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Heat seemed right at home in Orlando. Having finished up as the fifth seed, Miami fought its way through the Eastern Conference to be the last team standing, setting up a clash with the Los Angeles Lakers.

In the end, a familiar face halted the unexpected but impressive title charge. LeBron James was a champion twice during his time with the franchise, but he helped mastermind their downfall in a series that went six games.

The next chapter saw several players on the Heat hampered by COVID-19 protocols and injury, yet Miami still finished up as the sixth seed at the end of the 2020-21 regular season. There was no extended playoff run this time, though, as they were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks.

Now team president Pat Riley has some key decisions to make, despite the team not owning their first-round pick in the upcoming draft. So, does this roster need a complete overhaul, or just some minor tweaks to get back contending again?

The chosen two

Riley has never been afraid to push all his chips into the middle if he feels a player is worth the gamble. However, it appears he is ready to hold on when it comes to his two aces, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, describing them as a "great core" in his end-of-season media conference after losing to the Bucks.

Butler averaged 21.5 points per game in the regular season, a slight increase on his 2019-20 number (19.9). His three-point shot continues to be off (as in milk left in the fridge a week past its sell-by date off), but he feasts much closer to the basket. His average attempts in the restricted area finished up at 5.9, while he managed 3.9 in the paint (non-restricted area). It is surprising, then, to see his free throw attempts fall, though he set career-high marks for assists (7.1) and steals (2.08), showing his all-round value to Miami.

Adebayo too saw an increase in terms of his offensive production, going for 18.7 points per game in the regular season. The center's presence also helped Miami give up the fewest points in the paint (41.3 per game), while overall the team ranked fifth in terms of points against (108.0).

However, the Bucks stifled the duo on offense in the postseason, which has to be a cause for concern. Adebayo shot 45.6 per cent from the field while averaging just 3.3 free throw attempts, way down from the 6.1 from the previous playoffs.

Butler's struggles were even greater, as he shot 29.7 per cent from the field in four games, leading to an average of 14.5 points while playing 38.5 minutes. His plus/minus ended up at a ghastly -21 per game, the worst ranking of all 239 players to feature in the playoffs.

The 31-year-old is eligible for a contract extension during the offseason, which would be a maximum four-year deal potentially worth as much as $181million, and despite what happened against Milwaukee, the Heat seem ready to commit to the five-time All-Star. If Butler plays out the season under his current contract, he has a $37.6m player option for 2022-23.

With Adebayo locked in for the long term, Miami needs to identify exactly who can help them out, starting with those they already know...

 

Super Herro, or just an ordinary guy?

Tyler Herro was a playoff revelation in the bubble. Here was a young player ready to embrace the challenge, a shooter capable of knocking down big shots (he set a new record for 3-pointers by a rookie in the postseason), reaching double figures for points in all but one of his appearances.

His regular season numbers in 2020-21 improved (15.1 points compared to 13.5) despite a dip in production from beyond the arc – and amid ever-growing whispers about being traded. While the deadline passing silenced such speculation, it is likely to get louder again in the coming weeks.

"We'll figure it out with him, but what happened to him going down the stretch, I actually thought he got better as a player," Riley said, maintaining Herro is a "core player".

However, the former Kentucky Wildcat appears to be the major asset for any big deal, so the Heat must decide if what they saw in the past season – including in the playoffs, when the guard averaged just 9.3 points in four games – has made them consider selling on the 13th overall pick in 2019.

Decisions, decisions...

The Heat have an opportunity to create a major chunk of cap space by declining team options for two experienced veterans.

Goran Dragic can be retained at a cost of $19.44m, a number that feels high despite the significant contributions he has made in the past two seasons when playing big minutes, mostly when coming off the bench.

The 35-year-old saw a decrease in points and assists in the 2020-21 campaign (reverting toward the numbers he posted in 2018-19), while he was also restricted to 50 games during the regular season.

Likewise, Andre Iguodala’s declining impact may mean a cap number of $15 million is too much for the Heat to contemplate paying a 37-year-old who averaged 4.3 points per game in both the regular and postseason combined, despite whatever intangibles he may bring to the team.

Then there is the Victor Oladipo conundrum. Miami gave up Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and a 2022 pick swap to get the two-time All-Star from Houston ahead of the deadline. The deadline acquisition played all of four games before suffering a right quadriceps injury that required season-ending surgery.

Now, Oladipo is a free agent with an uncertain future. It is not known when he will return to the court – there were initial reports he may not play at all next season – with the Heat left to make a judgment call based on all 111 minutes of action he played for them. Good luck with that, Pat. Since averaging 23.1 points in 2017-18 for the Pacers, Oladipo has played in 88 regular season games.

They do have far more information and experience when it comes to two other players who are set to hit the market in free agency, though.

 

Show them the money!

Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn are about to get paid – but will it be Miami who coughs up to keep them?

Both have excelled at times for the Heat after going undrafted out of college, with the team benefiting from signing the pair on cut-price terms. The low-risk moves paid off spectacularly, but now comes the financial backlash.

Nunn posted relatively similar numbers in his second season following an impressive rookie year, even improving slightly from 3-point range (38.1 per cent compared to 35.0 per cent) and in terms of steals (0.93 from 0.84).

Set to be a restricted free agent, the guard could be set to receive offers around $15m per season, according to reports. That number may well make the Heat decide to pass, considering the league-wide depth at the position.

Robinson's situation is the same in terms of his contract situation, but his outlook appears even rosier than Nunn’s. A career 42.3 per cent shooter from deep, he was the fastest player to 500 three-pointers in terms of games played, reaching the milestone in just 152 outings. To put that achievement into context, Stephen Curry did so in 221 games, while Damian Lillard achieved it in 199.

Evolution or Revolution? Verdict: Evolution

Riley has already made clear the focus in the offseason is adding the necessary parts to bring the best out of Butler and Adebayo, rather than looking to move either of them on in a blockbuster trade.

Miami finished with a 55.6 winning percentage despite the constant rotations forced on coach Erik Spoelstra due to a myriad of absences, plus the acquisition of Oladipo that was made with a focus on another deep playoff run failed to pan out through no fault of their own.

There were links with Kyle Lowry at the time of the deadline too, and the point guard could be a target again.

Miami could also explore sign-and-trade deals to make sure they get something in return for those they are willing to let move on. Whatever happens with those restricted free agents, it seems probable there will be a much-changed roster come the start of the next campaign.

A front-court partner for Adebayo who offers an outside shooting threat would be most helpful, as would a playmaking presence at point guard, particularly if both Nunn and Dragic are not to return.

Riley made clear he is ready to "roll forward" with the team himself, showing no signs of slowing down in his desire to reconstruct a roster at 76. No matter his age, it is all about a win-now mentality with him at the helm.

The Boston Celtics have made the Eastern Conference Finals in three of the past four years, but this time they are in danger of missing the playoffs entirely.

Boston (35-33) are seventh in the east heading into Tuesday's home clash against rivals the Miami Heat (37-31), and at this stage they are on track to feature in the NBA's inaugural play-in tournament next week.

If the Celtics, who lost 130-124 to the Heat on Sunday, go down to Miami again, it would all but seal Boston's fate.

Last season's NBA Finals participants Miami are currently sixth in the Eastern Conference – the top six advance directly to the playoffs.

The play-in tournament will include teams with the seventh through to the 10th-highest winning percentages in each conference, taking place between May 18-21.

There is a lot on the line with postseason berths up for grabs at TD Garden.

 

TOP PERFORMERS

Jimmy Butler – Miami Heat

If you needed more proof of Butler's importance to the Heat, look no further than Sunday's showdown. Miami's go-to guy put up 26 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds on the road in Boston, where he recorded his 17th double-double of the season.

Butler's character has often been questioned following stops in Minnesota and Philadelphia after making a splash with the Chicago Bulls, but he continues to impress in Miami, where he is averaging 21.6 points, a career-high 7.2 assists and a career-best 7.0 rebounds. The five-time All-Star also boasts a field-goal percentage of 49.6 – the best mark of his career so far.

Jayson Tatum – Boston Celtics

With Jaylen Brown suffering a season-ending wrist injury, the Celtics will rely heavily on another of their All-Stars – Tatum, who had 29 points in a losing effort against the Heat last time out.

Tatum is enjoying a career year, having elevated himself to an All-Star calibre forward with the Celtics last year. The third pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, Tatum is averaging 26.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists – all career highs in 2020-21, while he is also averaging the highest number of minutes on the court (35.9) amid Boston's frustrating season.

KEY BATTLE – PRESSURE ON KEMBA

Kemba Walker arrived in Bostom amid much fanfare in 2019 but the four-time All-Star has only shown glimpses, albeit injuries have not helped.

Walker finished with 18 points in the previous game against the Heat, though he was five-for-12 shooting, making just one of his four three-point attempts.

As Tatum carries the load, Walker must provide the necessary support against a Heat roster stacked with shooters in Butler, Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson, Goran Dragic and Tyler Herro.

HEAD TO HEAD

The Celtics and Heat have split their two games this season, and there is a theme.

After the Celtics beat the Heat 107-105 in January, Miami bounced back on Sunday. The margin of victory has not gone above six points, highlighting just how closely matched these two teams are.

Unsurprising, Tatum (27 points) and Butler (26 points) were the stars of the show in the January encounter.

Damian Lillard scored a season-high 50 points, including 20 in the last quarter, as the Portland Trail Blazers produced a remarkable comeback to snatch a last-gasp 125-124 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday.

The Pelicans led by 17 points late in the third term and Brandon Ingram had the chance to ice the game late on, before missing two free-throws as Portland snatched victory.

Lillard was the catalyst with his 20 final-quarter points, totalling 50 for the game, along with 10 assists and six rebounds. He also finished with six three-pointers and 18 of 18 free-throws.

He coolly scored two free-throws after Nickeil Alexander-Walker's costly fumble turned over possession. Zion Williamson had one last chance to steal victory but missed from a good close look.

The result improved Portland's record to 23-16 as they stay firmly in playoff contention while the Pelicans slipped to 17-23, despite Lonzo Ball's career-high 17 assists.

Lillard is now tied with LeBron James in seventh for all-time most 50-point NBA games.

Meanwhile, James had the 99th triple-double of his career with 25 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists, while Montrezl Harrell was equal top scorer for the Los Angeles Lakers in a 137-121 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Smooth Jazz back among winners

Rudy Gobert scored 11 of his 16 points in the final period as the Utah Jazz bounced back from their loss to the Golden State Warriors with a 117-109 win over the Boston Celtics.

Gobert, who also had 12 rebounds, was well supported by Donovan Mitchell (21 points and five assists) and impressive sixth man Jordan Clarkson (20 points and three assists) as the Jazz stormed home to edge past Boston.

Without Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris stepped up for the Philadelphia 76ers with 30 points in a thrilling 99-96 triumph over the New York Knicks.

Ben Simmons had 16 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists for the 76ers, who trailed by nine at the final change before a dominant fourth quarter.

Jimmy Butler starred with 28 points, 12 rebounds and four assists as the in-form Miami Heat made it five wins in a row with a 113-98 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Miami center Bam Adebayo also returned from injury with 14 points, nine rebounds and six assists.

Nate McMillan is yet to lose as head coach at the resurgent Atlanta Hawks, who claimed their sixth consecutive win, beating the Houston Rockets 119-107, led by Danilo Gallinari with 29 points.

 

No lift-off as Rockets grounded

While Atlanta have turned their season around with a coaching change, Houston have now lost 17 in a row. Stephen Silas is left scratching his head, with his side going from 11-10 to 11-27.

 

Big blocks

There were some huge blocks on Tuesday but 76ers veteran Dwight Howard stole the show early in the fourth, putting Julius Randle on the floor with an emphatic swat.

 

Tuesday's results

Utah Jazz 117-109 Boston Celtics
Miami Heat 113-98 Cleveland Cavaliers
Chicago Bulls 123-102 Oklahoma City Thunder
Atlanta Hawks 119-107 Houston Rockets
Philadelphia 76ers 99-96 New York Knicks
Portland Trail Blazers 125-124 New Orleans Pelicans
Los Angeles Lakers 137-121 Minnesota Timberwolves

 

Bucks at 76ers

The 76ers, without the injured Embiid, take on Giannis Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks in a blockbuster clash on Wednesday.

LeBron James became third player in NBA history to clock up 35,000 points but could not prevent the Los Angeles Lakers falling 109-98 against the in-form Brooklyn Nets.

James needed 15 points to join esteemed company in Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone, and it took him until just before half-time to achieve the feat at Staples Center.

Hours before tip off, the 36-year-old was named a team captain in the 2021 All-Star game, becoming first player to be selected 17 straight times, and he went on to put up 32 points on Thursday.

But it was not enough for the NBA’s number one defense, as the Nets extended their winning run to five games, with Kyrie Irving returning from back tightness to boost the NBA’s number one offense.

James Harden powered up the Nets with his 18th double-double (23 points, 11 assists) of the season, while Joe Harris showed his three-point prowess, dropping six of seven attempts, to clock up 21 total points.

Brooklyn rallied midway through the first half, sinking seven from 11 shots from downtown to open up an 11-point lead. It was one they never relinquished to move to 19-12, while the Lakers fall to 22-8.
 

Red-hot Butler does it again

Jimmy Butler recorded his third straight triple-double (13 points, 13 assists, 10 rebounds) in the Miami Heat's 118-110 win against the Sacramento Kings, while Bam Adebayo also got in on the act with 16 points, 10 assist and 12 rebounds. They are the only teammates to ever record same-game triple-doubles in multiple games.

Joel Embiid's return fuelled the Philadelphia 76ers' to a drought-ending 118-113 win over the Houston Rockets in the NBA on Wednesday.

Embiid had scored 35 points in back-to-back games before back tightness caused him to miss Monday's defeat to the high-flying Utah Jazz – a third straight loss – but the three-time All Star came back in style.

The star center claimed a 31-point, 11-rebound double-double, adding nine assists, as the 76ers dug deep against the Rockets to condemn Houston to a seventh defeat in a row midweek.

Philadelphia's win improved the 76ers to 19-10 atop of the Eastern Conference, while Western Conference leaders the Jazz extended their winning run to nine games with a 114-96 triumph against the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Jazz have won 20 of their past 21 games to set the pace in the NBA this season.

Elsewhere, the Portland Trail Blazers made it a 3-0 road trip with a 126-124 win against the New Orleans Pelicans as Damian Lillard scorched to 43 points and 16 assists after dropping the winning three-pointer in the final seconds.

Pelicans star Zion Williamson hit back with a career-high 36 points for the hosts, but Portland snatched a sixth consecutive win.

Stephen Curry delivered another dazzling display of three-point shooting as the Golden State Warriors overpowered the Orlando Magic 111-105 in the NBA.

Curry went into the contest on a career-best streak of 12 consecutive games scoring at least four three-pointers, and the two-time MVP wasted no time extending that run to 13 inside the first quarter at Chase Center on Thursday.

James Harden is the only other player in NBA history to nail four threes in 13 straight games, after putting up 40 points, draining 10 of 19 from beyond the arc.

Curry has posted at least 25 points while shooting at least 50.0 per cent from the field in each of his last eight games. According to Stats Perform, it is the longest streak by any guard since Michael Jordan did so in 11 successive games in 1995-96.

Warriors team-mate Andrew Wiggins scored 21 points in support, while Magic star Nikola Vucevic hit a 25-point, 13-rebound double-double in reply.

Miami Heat stars Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo have been ruled out of Tuesday's scheduled showdown with the Philadelphia 76ers due to the NBA's health and safety protocols amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Butler and Adebayo were added to Miami's COVID-19 protocol list on Monday, joining team-mates Goran Dragic, Kendrick Nunn, Maurice Harkless, Udonis Haslem and KZ Okpala.

Heat guard Avery Bradley had been placed on the health and safety protocols list before Sunday's matchup against the Boston Celtics was postponed.

The coronavirus situation also saw the postponement of Monday's game between the New Orleans Pelicans and Dallas Mavericks, as well as the Celtics-Chicago Bulls encounter on Tuesday.

Miami are ninth in the Eastern Conference with a 4-4 record after reaching last season's NBA Finals, eventually beaten by the Los Angeles Lakers.

These are uncertain times for the NBA as it continues to navigate the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 protocols have left rosters lighter in number and, with contract tracing having a major impact, it is far from surprising to see games being postponed.

The absences have offered some players greater opportunities to impress in the embryonic stages of a shortened season that will require adaptability from all involved.

After an eventful week, Stats Perform assesses those performers who have stood out - for good and bad reasons - in games from January 4-10.

 

RUNNING HOT...

Bradley Beal 

It has been a tough start for the Wizards, who are stuck in the basement of the Eastern Conference. Beal, however, has excelled amid the defeats. He is averaging 35 points per game for the season but has been particularly spectacular in recent outings, including dropping 60 against the Philadelphia 76ers. While it set a new career best for points - and tied a franchise record too - Beal made clear he is not interested in personal milestones: "I just want to win. Sometimes you might be able to score 40, 50, 60, whatever the case may be, but I just want to win".

Tyrese Maxey 

The 21st pick in the 2020 draft had scored a combined tally of 52 points through his first nine NBA appearances. Then, amid injuries, positive COVID tests and coronavirus-enforced isolations, Maxey was thrust into a leading role as one of just seven players available against the Denver Nuggets on Saturday. His response to the situation was to score 39 points in just under 44 minutes of action, having taken 33 shots but no free throw attempts. In doing so, he became the first 76ers rookie with at least 35 points in a game since franchise legend Allen Iverson in 1997. 

Jimmy Butler 

Butler has begun to heat up after a cold start to the new campaign for Miami. The five-time All-Star had been hampered by injury issues but has looked back to somewhere near his best of late, managing 18, 26 and 26 points in his past three games. Surprisingly, though, Butler is still yet to manage a successful three-point attempt, missing on his seven shots from deep so far. It is a different story from the free-throw line, though, going 28 of 29 from the charity stripe.

LaMelo Ball 

The rise and rise of the youngest Ball brother continues. The point guard became the youngest player in NBA history to score a triple-double as Charlotte Hornets beat the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday. At 19 years and 140 days old, Ball had 22 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists. He had narrowly missed out on achieving the feat in his team's previous outing, against a New Orleans Pelicans team that included older sibling Lonzo. His rebounding average has gone from 4.33 a game to 9.25 across the past week. 

GOING COLD...

James Harden  

The NBA's scoring champion for the previous three seasons, Harden is still averaging 26 points per game despite continued doubts over his long-term future in Houston. However, it has not been a particularly productive week for the guard, who has not reached double digits in terms of field goals made in four straight outings. There were 15-point displays against both the Pacers and the Magic, then 20 points in a defeat to the Lakers. Across that stretch, Harden was six for 22 from three-point range. Astonishingly, he did not attempt a solitary free throw against Orlando. 

Trae Young 

To say Young has gone cold from deep recently is an understatement. The Atlanta Hawk landed five of six attempts in the season-opener against the Bulls, but since then has managed just nine successful long-range shots, including going a combined one for 14 in his most recent three appearances. Understandably, then, his average for points per game has dipped from 28.17 on January 3 to 17.67 for the past week.

Russell Westbrook 

A quadriceps injury will keep Westbrook sidelined for at least a week. His early form with the Wizards has been steady, including reaching double digits for points in all of his seven games for the franchise. Where there has been a dip for the former NBA MVP is in rebounding. He was up at 11.20 per game for the season by January 3, but he has averaged 6.00 for the past week following reduced contributions in defeats to the 76ers and the Celtics.

Blake Griffin  

Griffin hit with eight of 16 three-point shots for Detroit against the Cavaliers on December 26, but his output from long range since suggests that number could prove to be a post-Christmas outlier when compared to the rest of the season. In the past week, the 31-year-old has landed two from deep out of 18 tries for the struggling Pistons. His overall field goal percentage is down on his career mark too (37.6 per cent from 49.7 per cent), explaining why he is averaging 13.9 points per game. 

The NBA is back! A shortened schedule, a new play-in tournament and increased roster sizes have created plenty of interest in a new season.

A December start seems to have caught a few of the potential title hopefuls a little cold, though it is still early days. The key is not about starting fast, but finishing strong.

Still, some have hit the ground running. Each week, Stats Perform will take a look at the players who are impressing, as well as those seemingly stuck in a bit of a slump.

For this opening edition, however, all statistical comparisons are made to performances on average across the entire 2019-20 season.
 

RUNNING HOT... 

Stephen Curry (32.3ppg versus 20.8ppg) 

Scoring 62 points in a game sure helps to boost the average. Curry actually started out a little slowly – hardly a surprise considering injury meant he played just five games in the previous campaign – as he made only 13 of his combined 48 field goal attempts in defeats to the Nets and Bucks. However, Curry was certainly cooking against the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, hitting eight three-pointers as he posted a new career-high points total. So far in this season, he is making 4.3 three-pointers per outing. 

Christian Wood (23.8ppg versus 13.1ppg) 

These are uncertain times in Houston, where James Harden seemingly no longer wants to be. While his future remains the headline story for the franchise, Christian Wood has quickly shown why he was such an astute signing. Having gone undrafted out of college, the 25-year-old flashed potential with the Detroit Pistons in 2019-20, tempting the Rockets to sign him to a three-year, $41million deal. Their reward? Wood has averaged 23.8 points while playing 36.5 minutes for a team that boasts a 2-2 record through four games. 

Kyle Anderson (16.7ppg versus 5.8ppg) 

Opportunity knocks for Anderson in Memphis due to the absence of Jaren Jackson Jr with a knee issue. The forward's minutes on court have risen as a result – and so, too, has his production. Having never averaged in double digits for points for his previous six seasons in the NBA, Anderson is now up at 16.7 per game for the Grizzlies. Ja Morant was, less surprisingly, on the rise in terms of his scoring output as well, up at 26.3 points per game before suffering an ankle injury. 

Luguentz Dort (14.6ppg versus 6.8ppg) 

Someone has to score points for Oklahoma, right? GM Sam Presti is clearly in it for the long haul in terms of a rebuild, considering the number of moves made in the offseason and draft picks now owned by the team. Still, Dort remains on the roster and has stepped up to accept greater responsibility. The Canadian has raised his successful three-point attempts from an average of 0.8 to 2.4 a game, shooting an impressive 44.4 per cent from deep. Team-mate Isaiah Roby is another to catch the eye for the Thunder, averaging 13 points and 6.5 total rebounds.


GOING COLD...

Devonte' Graham (9.0ppg versus 18.2ppg)

The moment Charlotte selected fellow point guard LaMelo Ball with the third pick in the draft, Graham was under pressure. He retained his starting job in the Hornets' backcourt but the pressure is mounting now, considering the form of both players. While Ball seems to be a quick learner after some preseason concerns, his teammate has struggled. Graham is at just nine points per game - half his average from the previous season. His three-point shooting has dipped to 2.0 made per outing from 3.5. He forced himself off the bench and into the rotation for the Hornets last year, yet could soon find himself moving in the opposite direction.

Jimmy Butler (8.3ppg versus 19.9ppg)

There are reasons behind the five-time NBA All-Star's sluggish start. Butler has featured in just three games so far - and one of those he only played in the first half, with an ankle issue keeping him off the court for the remainder of the clash with the Pelicans. He averaged 19.9 per game for a Heat team that made it all the way to the Finals last term. The early going has seen an 11.6-point decrease in his scoring output, though expect that to rise as the weeks progress.

Kelly Oubre Jr. (9.7ppg versus 18.7ppg)

Oubre was on the merry-go-round headlined by Chris Paul going from Oklahoma to Phoenix. His form last season with the Suns was not enough for the Thunder to keep him around, though, as they dealt him to Golden State. It has not been plain sailing with the Warriors; while not required to contribute quite so much on offense for his new team, the concern is his three-point shooting. Having made 1.9 on average per game last season, Oubre's been successful with two of his 30 attempts so far. The early report card for him reads as such: Must do better.

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