Ira Winderman: Heat playoff lineup still an abstract, with Spoelstra not one to paint by the numbers

MIAMI — When there have already been 31 lineups through the season’s first 63 games, it’s not as if anything can be assumed with the Miami Heat when it comes to the rotation going forward.

Because of that lack of continuity, we arguably stand at an inflection point.

With Tyler Herro out the past seven games with knee and foot issues, it has allowed Erik Spoelstra to explore alternate avenues.

This latest path has been opting for spacing and shooting, with the choice of Duncan Robinson to open in place of Herro.

Almost simultaneously has come the move to Nikola Jovic at power forward, to partially help offset some of the loss of playmaking and shooting with Herro out.

And yet, based on how Spoelstra over the years has altered lineups and rotations on the eve, at the start and in the midst of postseasons, it’s not as if anything is set in stone.

Because for as much as injuries have played into the 31 lineups, so have fundamental differences in what each combination has delivered and can deliver.

Ultimately, it could be matchup-based, depending on where the Heat fall in the playoff draw. And this very much is a roster built for such optionality.

So how could Spoelstra tinker with his toys?

You start with the absolutes: Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo start.

This is a team with a Big Two (Adebayo’s performances the past two games notwithstanding).


Then you move to what appear would be the near absolutes: Herro and Terry Rozier start, Herro because nothing about his play to this point has created cause for demotion, Rozier because of how the Heat sold off a part of their future, in the form of a first-round pick, in order to have Rozier in place for this very moment, moments Rozier has stepped up to in recent games.

But there also could be a case of the near absolutes not being the absolute reality.

Herro has a history of excelling as sixth man, success beyond his 2022 Sixth Man of the Year award. No player on this roster projects similar possibilities of instant offense off the bench.

As for Rozier, he, too, has the makeup of a professional sixth man, in many ways also instant offense personified.

Then there is the question at power forward.

Spoelstra continually has stressed that his combinations are about the totality of the combinations, not necessarily a single element.

The reality is that a starting lineup with Herro, Rozier and Jovic puts significant defensive pressure on Butler and Adebayo. Basically, the latter two can defend. Those first three? Not so much.

Enter Caleb Martin or even Haywood Highsmith, defensive-minded components at power forward that potentially better balance a starting lineup with Herro and Rozier.

Martin’s recent uptick certainly would give legs to such an approach. He is playing his best ball of the season at the moment, even while dealing with a thumb issue.

The Herro decision likely will not be a decision at all. If Herro plays . . . Herro starts.

But Jovic hardly has earned such equity, at least not yet.

These recent starts for Jovic assuredly could pay dividends in future seasons.

But the playoffs are about living in the most significant, most scouted moments of the season. At 20, playoff time may not yet be Jovic time. And now that he has been scouted, the calculus assuredly will change on both ends. The playoff grinder awaits.

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As for Robinson, there will remain ample time for minutes without necessarily having to play him defensively together with Herro. What matters most at this point is that Robinson has locked himself into the playoff rotation, which arguably already is a step forward, accepting that there can be off nights such as Friday.

So keep an eye on Martin.

And keep an eye on Adebayo, Martin, Butler, Herro, Rozier — where this all ultimately could be headed.

Even with a few more lineups assuredly thrown into the mix along the way to the April 14 regular-season finale.


STARTING LINE: Unlike at the end of his Heat tenure, Kyle Lowry again is viewed as starting quality by the Philadelphia 76ers, back in a first five for the first time since his Jan. 17 start for the Heat against the Toronto Raptors. Philadelphia coach Nick Nurse, who coached and started Lowry with the Raptors, said the move allows combo guard Tyrese Maxey to play with more scoring freedom. “It gets Tyrese off the ball,” Nurse said, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It gets him into some other action.” Lowry, who has two opportunities remaining this season to face the Heat (on March 18 in Philadelphia and April 4 at Kaseya Center), said he is just trying to fit into whatever role is designated. “I feel here,” he said, “I’m able to have a voice, and I think these guys respect what I’ve gone through throughout my career, so far, and playing against me, now playing with me. And they understand I just want to see them be successful.”

HOME AGAIN: Having drawn interest from the Heat for a possible reunion since he was dealt away to the Houston Rockets at the 2021 NBA trading deadline, Kelly Olynyk is now set for the future as a Toronto Raptors, with the Canadian big man agreeing to a two-year, $26 million extension with the Raptors after his deadline trade from the Utah Jazz. “It’s nice to re-plant some roots, and really enjoy being home and helping this franchise be able to get back where it’s been,” Olynyk said, according to the Toronto Star. Born in Toronto and then raised in western Canada, Olynyk said, “I’ve wanted to be here since I was four years old. So it’s special and to create that trust and that bond, hopefully I’ll be here for the rest of my career.” The extension was the maximum allowable unless Olynyk entered free agency in the offseason. He said the security with the extension makes it easier to move forward with Canada’s Olympic team for this summer’s Paris Games. “That was definitely a big part of it as well, getting this out of the way,” said Olynyk, who was with the Heat from 2017 to ’21.

LET GAMES BEGIN: As USA Basketball sorts out an Olympic roster that likely will include Heat center Bam Adebayo and also has the Heat’s Jimmy Butler and Duncan Robinson in that player pool, Heat newcomer Patty Mills said the plan remains to be with Australia for this summer’s Paris Games. “No question,” the 35-year-old veteran said. “I’ve always had my heart set on the Paris Olympics for a long time now. Fortunately enough for me, it will be my sixth Olympics and I think that’s the case of being able to take this opportunity here and to be able to give all that I can to the Miami Heat for the remainder of the season and deep into the playoffs. To pursue a goal here I think is the best preparation for the Australian team and also what we’re trying to achieve here. So you look at it from the next few months, what’s on the table in terms of goals to accomplish, I’m super excited about putting all the eggs in one basket over here and expecting there to be a huge few months coming up, starting here with the Heat, and then off to Paris with the Boomers.”

NUMEROLOGY: Generally, jerseys with No. 55 or lower are preferable in the NBA or elsewhere in basketball simply because of the ease of officials to denote the numerals with hand signals of those who have committed fouls. Patty Mills therefore put himself among a select few in the Heat’s 36 seasons when he selected No. 88, after his previous No. 8 already was in use by the Heat’s Jamal Cain. The only Heat players who previously have worn a number higher than No. 55 (Duncan Robinson‘s number) have been Nemanja Bjelica (No. 70), Omer Yurtseven (No. 77) and Jae Crowder (No. 99). The only repeat-digit jersey the Heat have yet to issue now stands as No. 66 (with No.33 now retired for Alonzo Mourning), with the Heat also having had five players previous wear No. 00.


11-0. Heat record this season when Jimmy Butler attempts at least 11 free throws, with a 17-game winning streak in such situations dating to last season.