The Miami Heat went 7-6 during Hassan Whiteside’s near month-long absence — impressive considering he wasn’t the only Heat starter who missed time due to injury throughout that stretch.
But if you’re looking for one area where the team got a lot better without him, look no further than a relatively new stat in the league: screen assists. On Dec. 1, shortly after Whiteside went out with a bone bruise in his left knee for the second time, the Heat were tied for 10th in screen assists with 9.1 per game.
Following Saturday’s win in Orlando, when the Heat racked up an impressive 24 screen assists Miami now ranks No. 1 in the league in screen assists with 11.3 per game. Since Dec. 1, the Heat has averaged 14.7 screen assists per game — 2.3 more screen assists than anybody else in the league. It’s a stat coach Erik Spoelstra is proud of.
“Not a whole lot [has changed offensively],” Spoelstra said Tuesday when asked for his assessment of the first half of the season in 2017. “[We’re] just becoming better and more efficient at it, staying away from our weaknesses. We haven’t created a whole new offense. I know Hassan likes to think that it is. We’re just asking him to do things that are more to our strength zone right now. But the offense is very similar. That has trended very well in the last few weeks.
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“Our screening assist numbers, I think we’re No. 1 in the league right now. That’s gone way up. A month ago we were in the bottom half of the league in screen assists. Efficiency has gone up offensively in the last 13 games, top 10. But our defense has been inconsistent and we definitely need to be more committed on that end of the court.”
Whiteside posted a season-high 10 screen assists in Saturday’s win at Orlando while also collecting a career-high four assists. The screen assists, though, are more important to the Heat’s offense, which scores the bulk of its points off dribble penetration and finding open shooters.
It’s where rookie Bam Adebayo has thrived. Adebayo, 20, entered the day Tuesday ranked 18th in the league with 3.2 screen assists per game, most on the Heat. Kelly Olynyk is next with 2.9 screen assists and Whiteside follows him at 2.7 screen assists.
Last year, as a team, the Heat finished 14th in the league in screen assists with 10.1 per game.
“That’s been one of the major components. Look, you don’t have to necessarily be a basketball rocket scientist to figure things out,” Spoelstra said last Friday. “You start paying attention and being more discipline to the details of your offense, things will start to change and guys will start to make shots. Every shooter in this league is a better shooter when they get an open shot. So you have to work the offense through screening, details of timing, details of coming off screens harder, building a connection with your teammate of where they like the ball and how they like to get open. All these things take time, but you have to work at it. It doesn’t happen just naturally.
“Our guys have been very diligent about working at it. Bam and K.O. regardless of how they score in a particular game, our offense is always better with them because of their attention to detail.”