ATLANTA — We tend to say depth doesn’t matter in the playoffs, but that’s not entirely true.
Yes, depth matters less in the playoffs, as a team will have its top five players playing a much larger portion of total minutes. But a big distinction might be that depth matters differently in the playoffs, because the playoffs are so game-dependent and player rotation is normally greatly reduced.
The Miami Heat’s Game 4 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday was a prime example. The Heat actually used a fairly unlimited rotation by playoff standards, with 10 players seeing action in competitive play in the first four games.
Still, with Kyle Lowry absent due to injury and the Heat struggling to contain Atlanta’s bench units once Bogdan Bogdanović checked into games, Miami took its rotation in a direction completely different Sunday. After not playing in any of the first three games, Victor Oladipo entered the game with 7:53 left in the second quarter and played 23 of the game’s remaining 32 minutes. Miami was down six points when he entered; the Heat ended up winning by 24.
The Heat had already pulled off a somewhat similar feat earlier in the series, unleashing Caleb Martin’s defense in Game 2 for 17 minutes off the bench to lead a second half to victory; Martin played just five minutes in Game 1 and barely 50 seconds in Game 3.
However, Sunday’s decision took things to another level, as Oladipo effectively passed three players (Martin, Dewayne Dedmon and Duncan Robinson) to form a central part of a five-man unit that smothered the Hawks with his defense.
Miami’s ability to do this illustrates the key difference in “playoff style” depth: it gives you a much better chance of finding the right five players on any given night, in any given series.
That night, Miami decided it was best to play small with PJ Tucker at center when Bam Adebayo committed his fourth foul early in the third quarter. That, in turn, necessitated adding another perimeter player to the mix.
But why Oladipo? In this case, with the Heat being undersized and changing everything, he had to be a solid defender. Enter Oladipo, who still looked rusty on the offensive end (he forced a few jumpers and shot 3 for 10) but nonetheless made himself a factor with energetic defense, eight rebounds and four assists. The net result was a stifling Miami defense that allowed just 37 points in 27 minutes before tying off the Dogs with a 24-point lead and four minutes left.
“There’s no nine-man rotation,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra insisted after the game. “It’s a 15-man rotation, things happen and everyone has to be ready to go.”
Oladipo has been nursing a quad injury for most of the season but has continued to push for a comeback and finally looks game-ready. He only played eight regular season games, but did enough (16.9 PER, 60.5 TS percentage, solid defense) to at least make you wonder: can he be an X factor in the playoffs? for the Heat? With Lowry’s hamstring looming as a possible issue in the upcoming playoff round, it’s more than just a consideration.
Oladipo scored 40 points in the season finale in Orlando, an admittedly low-stakes affair with backups playing the chain, and most notably scored 21 (including six 3-pointers) in a road win in end of season in Toronto with the A-listers playing.
“I really admire Vic,” Spoelstra said. “A lot of players would have canceled this season, it’s the safest game…especially when you’ve had success. He really worked, he has an incredible attitude.
And while Spoelstra couldn’t circle a specific date or time when they would need to turn to him, “we knew something was going to happen, in the playoffs” where they would eventually call his number.
Oladipo, for his part, seemed to feel his opportunity presented itself. Although Spoelstra didn’t explicitly warn him he would be playing, his pre-game practice before Game 4 – closer to tip time, more focused on game situations than cardio – was the routine of someone who was expecting to play that night.
Simultaneously with Oladipo’s emergence, another notable trend is also occurring in Heatland: the diminishing role of Duncan Robinson. Let’s not exaggerate things: he scored 27 points in the first game. But Robinson’s misfortune is that, since being benched at the end of the season, his minutes tend to arrive alongside another suspect wing defender in Tyler Herro. One of them had to keep Bogdanović in the Atlanta series, and whoever it was, he was an incredibly popular target for the Hawks.
That’s what necessitated the switch to Oladipo (and Martin in Game 2) in the first place: Miami can’t play two suspect wing defenders at the same time against most playoff opponents. (Philadelphia may be an exception; Boston surely isn’t.) That Toronto game mentioned above is a perfect example, as Robinson was limited to 12 minutes by a heavy wing-hunting Raptors offensive pattern. . Enter Oladipo.
The juxtaposition of these two developments creates some interesting issues for next season, in particular. Robinson is a shining symbol of Miami player development and a two-way system the envy of the league, an enduring example of the Heat’s ability to create something out of nothing. He went from an undrafted sixth man from Michigan to an NBA Finals starter and a five-year, $90 million contract.
This program has produced four undrafted players (Robinson, Martin, Max Strus and Gabe Vincent) who are part of the current play rotation for the East seed, and a fifth (Ömer Yurtseven) who could very well join next year. .
The ironic butterfly effect of Miami’s continued success in this area is that those same players may be the ones pushing Robinson aside. The Heat seemingly spawned a better version of the same player for themselves in Strus, a long-range bomber like Robinson but with more strength and fast-twitch athleticism. He is two years younger, signed through next season on a minimum contract, and replaced Robinson in the starting lineup at the end of the regular season. Meanwhile, Martin and Vincent’s defenses have made it much easier to whip up functional bench units without Robinson, especially in pairs with Herro.
As for Oladipo, he’s only 29 (yes, really) and finds himself in a contract situation rarely seen: he’s on a one-year minimum contract, but the Heat will have full Bird rights to him because they traded during the 2021 trade deadline. If he plays well, the Heat will be in control to retain him without cap constraint. Moreover, Strus, Vincent and Yurtseven have already signed minimum agreements until 2023.
(Keeping Martin, by the way, could get a little trickier: He’s a restricted free agent, which theoretically gives Miami the right to match an offer sheet. However, without Bird rights, the Heat would have to use exception money to match anything more than 20% above the minimum).
Robinson, meanwhile, signed his contract last summer, which theoretically locked him into that Miami core for half a decade. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that any trade to Miami this summer will almost certainly have to include his contract; the fact that the Heat reached a deal at the 2022 trade deadline to free their 2022 and 2023 first-round picks from trade constraints only adds to the intrigue.
For a team like Miami that is famous for its off-season whaling, one can imagine a draft day deal sending Robinson, the first of 2022 and the first of 2023, to target a big forward who can play between Jimmy Butler and Adebayo. (This wouldn’t normally be allowed by the Stepien Rule, but teams can refine this on draft night to select a player the other team wants with their first-round pick, then trade that player and the first-round pick of the following year immediately after the draft (this is how Portland acquired Robert Covington, for example, in the 2020 draft.)
It’s not just the idle speculation of a writer who has too much free time, either. Rival front offices are wondering the exact same thing and anticipating the opportunities that might come their way.
This is all in the future, of course. Right now, Miami has a playoff series they’re trying to win, and Spoelstra is going to look to any players who give him the best chance of surviving that moment.
In the short term, Oladipo’s solid run in Game 4 gives him one more option, another chess piece to put on the table against the right opponent. Or not… as far as we know, Robinson will play 30 minutes per game in the next series.
Nonetheless, there’s a very different, longer-term game of chess playing out in the offices as teams prepare for the offseason. As Miami contemplates its future beyond this season, it’s fair to wonder if Oladipo’s Game 4 cameo wasn’t just a fluke in the playoffs, but rather a harbinger of what’s to come. who will follow.
(Photo: Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)