Friday's notebook: Heat picking up quality wins

Plus, a look at zone defense and Al Horford's play without Joel Embiid

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann NBA.com

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Jan 10, 2020 12:12 PM ET

Miami has been one of the best teams when facing formidable opponents.

We're almost to the midway point of the 2019-20 NBA season. Through Thursday, 566 (46%) of the season's 1,230 games have been played. Here are some things of note as we head into the Week 13 weekend...

Heat picking up quality wins

When the Miami Heat won in Indiana on Wednesday, the quality of the win was a little bit lost in the Jimmy Butler-T.J. Warren back-and-forth. But the victory improved the Heat to 10-6 in games between the 13 teams that currently have winning records. After losing six of their first nine games against that group, the Heat have won seven straight, with two wins against the Sixers and two against the Pacers in that stretch.

Only the Bucks have a better winning percentage in games between the 13 good teams...

Games played between teams currently over .500
TeamWLPCTOffRtgRkDefRtgRkNetRtgRk
Milwaukee950.643109.14103.92+5.21
Miami1060.625105.810106.95-1.111
Denver850.615109.12107.17+2.12
LA Clippers1070.588104.011103.41+0.66
Houston860.571108.75108.811-0.17
L.A. Lakers970.563108.17107.06+1.15
Philadelphia1090.526109.41107.79+1.73
Boston770.500108.46106.84+1.64
Indiana780.467109.13109.913-0.89
Dallas690.400108.08108.812-0.88
Oklahoma City6100.375107.49108.310-0.910
Utah590.357102.013107.38-5.313
Toronto5120.294103.612106.63-3.112
TOTAL100100 107.1     
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
Through Jan. 9, 2020

But 10 teams have been better statistically in games within the group of 13. The Heat's 10 wins have come by a total of 80 points (six of the 10 have been by five points or fewer), while their six losses have come by a total of 93 points (four of the six have been by 15 points or more).

The Heat have the league's second best record -- 11-3, behind only the Bucks, again -- in games that were within five points in the last five minutes. That includes a 7-1 mark in games that were within five in the last five against the other 12 teams over .500.

The Heat have been better defensively than offensively in their 16 games within the group, but the bigger difference between their 3-6 start and their seven-game winning streak in those games has been on offense (102.3 vs. 110.4 points scored per 100 possessions). They've shot better from 3-point range (Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson are a combined 44-for-92 from beyond the arc over the last seven) and done a much better job of taking care of the ball (15.3 vs. 12.6 turnovers per 100 possessions).

The Heat don't play another game against a team currently over .500 until next Friday, when they visit Oklahoma City. They'll spend this weekend in New York, visiting the Nets on Friday and the Knicks on Sunday. The Nets are 4-11 against teams currently over .500 (and enter the weekend with a seven-game losing streak), while the Knicks are 2-15 (with both wins having come against Dallas).
 

In the Zone

When the Heat beat the Raptors last week, holding the champs to just five points (on 2-for-16 shooting) over a nine-minute stretch in the fourth quarter, they did so with a zone defense. According to Synergy play-type tracking, the Heat played zone for 63 defensive plays last Thursday.

The Heat used a zone defense in a win over the defending champs.

That's a lot. But seeing a team play zone for most of the final three quarters of a game isn't as surprising as it would have been last season or the season prior.

In 2017-18, only two teams -- the Atlanta Hawks and Dallas Mavericks -- played at least 100 possessions of zone over the full season, according to Synergy. This season, 10 teams have already played at least 100 possessions of zone, and four more are on pace to do so by the end of the season.

Often, a zone is employed out of a timeout, to keep the opponent from being able to run the play it designed in the huddle. But more and more, we're seeing it for more than one or two possessions at a time.

Overall, zone hasn't been more effective than man-to-man this season (even if you remove the Wizards' 30th-ranked defense from consideration). According to Synergy, offenses have scored 0.95 points per play against zone and 0.96 points per play against man in half-court situations.

But among the 10 teams that have used it for at least 100 possessions, the Heat (0.85 points allowed per play), Dallas Mavericks (0.84) and LA Clippers (0.85) have found some success with the zone.

According to Synergy, three teams - the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, and Oklahoma City Thunder - have yet to play any zone. And really, zone defense still isn't all that common. The league-leading Wizards have used it on less than 11% of their defensive possessions, according to Synergy.

But it's certainly being used a lot more than just a couple of seasons ago, and we should no longer be surprised when we see it, even in a big game between two good teams.


Is it Al Horford time in Philly?

Is Al Horford better when playing without Joel Embiid?

The team that has had the most zone played against them (267 possessions) is the Philadelphia 76ers, who rank 25th in the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range (34%), with just two players - Furkan Korkmaz (38.4%) and Tobias Harris (35.6%) - who have shot better than the league average (35.4%) on at least 100 3-point attempts.

The Sixers have lost Joel Embiid to a left hand injury, suffered early in the team's win over the Thunder on Monday. Embiid returned to that game, but is set to have surgery on Friday and could miss an extended period of time.

Without their All-NBA center, the Sixers did get a good win on Thursday, improving to 3-0 against the Boston Celtics and 4-4 without Embiid. On points in the paint or from free throws, the Sixers outscored the Celtics, 62-46.

The Sixers' issues are sometimes boiled down to the idea that their two stars -- Embiid and Ben Simmons -- don't complement each other. But it's interesting that Simmons' *usage rate has been a little bit lower (19.3%) and he has shot worse (effective field goal percentage of 53.1%) with Embiid off the floor than with Embiid on the floor (19.5%, 60.7%).

* Usage rate = The percentage of a team's possessions a player completes (via field goal attempt, trip to the line or turnover) while he's on the floor.

Josh Richardson, the teammate that has played the most minutes alongside Embiid, has shot much better with Embiid on the floor, though he did lead the team with 29 points and seven assists on Thursday.

The same can't be said for the Sixers' forwards. Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Mike Scott have all shot much better with Embiid off the floor than they have with him on the floor.

Sixers' shooting with Embiid on and off the floor
 Embiid onEmbiid off 
PlayerFGAeFG%FGAeFG%Diff.
Harris26148.3%35057.7%9.4%
Horford8243.3%30954.2%10.9%
Korkmaz9353.8%17256.1%2.3%
Richardson25854.1%14344.8%-9.3%
Scott10645.3%9961.1%15.8%
Simmons19260.7%21253.1%-7.6%
eFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA
Includes players w/ at least 300 minutes on the floor w/ Embiid.
Through Jan. 9, 2020

While Harris and Scott have seen relatively small jumps in usage rate with Embiid off the floor, Horford's usage has been more than double with Embiid off the floor (21.6%) than it's been with him on the floor (10.4%). Horford's three highest-scoring games (32, 25 and 23 points) have all come in games Embiid has missed and against Boston on Thursday, Horford registered 17 points (on 7-for-11 shooting), eight rebounds, six assists and two blocks.

An extended absence for Embiid might help Horford find his mojo. Given how awful the Sixers were in the minutes Embiid was off the floor in the conference semifinals last year (minus-109 in 99 minutes remains mind-boggling), Horford's primary task is keeping the team afloat in those minutes this year. And in that regard, so far, so good. The Sixers have outscored their opponents by 6.8 points per 100 possessions (with strong offensive numbers) in the minutes that Horford has been on the floor without Embiid.

Does the size of his contract ($69 million guaranteed beyond this season) require that Horford be better with Embiid on the floor? Perhaps. We'll have to wait a bit before seeing if Horford can turn his season around in that regard.


An abundance of shooters in Utah

The Jazz lead the NBA in 3-point percentage (39%).

There are 93 players who have shot better than the league average (35.4%) on at least 100 3-point attempts. Twenty-five of the league's 30 teams have two, three or four of those 93 players. The team with the fewest (one) is the Minnesota Timberwolves, and they've been without him (Karl-Anthony Towns) for the last 12 games.

The team with the most (six) is the Utah Jazz. One of those six (Mike Conley) has been out for 15 of the last 16 games. But they added the sixth when they traded for Jordan Clarkson on Christmas Eve.

Three teams -- the Pistons, Clippers and Raptors -- have five guys who have shot better than the league average on at least 100 3-point attempts.


Moreyball McLemore

Ben McLemore is new to the Houston Rockets this season. But the seventh-year guard has taken to Moreyball like a fish to water.

Through 37 games with his new team, McLemore has yet to attempt a single shot from between the paint and the 3-point line. He's the only player in the league who has taken more than 15 shots from outside the paint without a single one of those shots having come inside the arc. McLemore has taken 252 shots from outside the paint and all of them have been 3-point attempts.

Through his first six seasons in the league, McLemore's ratio of 3-point attempts to mid-range attempts was 2.5. This season, it's infinity.

The next highest ratios of 3-point attempts to mid-range attempts among the 206 players who have taken at least 100 shots from outside the paint belong to...

More Rockets - Austin Rivers, Danuel House and P.J. Tucker - aren't much further down the list. Russell Westbrook has taken 169 (75%) of the team's 225 mid-range shots.

The other end of the list...

* * *

John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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