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The Subtle Dominance of Bam Adebayo

Nikola Jokic is rightfully getting his due, but the “other” center in the NBA Finals has been just as critical through two games. He’s even starting to play a little like his competition, too.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If you want to know why Bam Adebayo’s aggressive play is a perpetual source of discussion, particularly in these NBA Finals, look no further than the glowing assessment from one of his favorite handoff partners, Duncan Robinson.

“Bam is the heart and soul of what we’re doing on both ends,” Robinson said after Adebayo’s all-encompassing Game 2 performance. “He sets the tone for us defensively with his versatility and just making it difficult, usually on the team’s best player. Offensively, he does a lot. He gets people open. A lot of stuff that doesn’t show up on box scores: screens, assists. And also, when he’s aggressive, that’s usually when we’re at our best.”

After Adebayo’s 21-point, nine-rebound, four-assist performance in Game 2, the Miami Heat improved to 7-1 this postseason when Adebayo tops 20 points. The only loss came in his 26-point (and 25-shot) Game 1 showing against Denver.

“We just can’t say enough of how difficult his responsibilities are in this series,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after Game 2. “Arguably the toughest cover in the league [in Nikola Jokic] and then he has to shoulder a big offensive role for us as well.”

Jimmy Butler, Miami’s best player, is averaging eight assists in the Finals, but he’s taken a step back from the never-say-die scoring force that defined his early postseason performance. Adebayo has filled the vacuum, emerging as Miami’s most dominant and versatile star in this series thus far.

Adebayo has the impossible task of slowing down the two-time MVP while also switching on to shifty guards like Jamal Murray and anchoring Miami’s zone, which held the Nuggets to 0.875 points per direct chance in Game 2, according to Second Spectrum. On offense, Adebayo has always had a knack for the little things—a screen assist here, a hockey assist there—but in two games, he’s looking for the basket as much as he’s looking for his teammates. He leads Miami in touches (87.5), points per game (23.5), field goal attempts per game (19.5), and rebounds per game (11).

Adebayo craves the burden of responsibility. Miami has slowly fed his desire, helping him morph from a Dwight Howard–esque athletic prodigy into the kind of do-it-all center that can survive and thrive in the modern playoff climate, designed to play big men off the floor.

A bigger role hasn’t exactly translated into blunt force, however. On a jump-shot-heavy team that emphasizes movement and fluidity, Adebayo is often tasked with finding the flow rather than being the recipient of it. Game 2 was a case in point. You’d think that a team with a lumbering big with steel shoulders and 255 pounds of solid muscle would score more than 14 points at the rim, but the majority of the Heat’s offense has come from jumpers—as it has all postseason—often set up by Adebayo’s bulwark screens. In the 56 combined handoffs and picks Adebayo set in Game 2, Miami generated a sizzling 1.295 points per chance. Jokic, who scored a game-high 41 points, generated just 0.971 points per chance on those plays.

Miami’s and Denver’s offenses, both in the top five in passes per game this postseason, operate on the same principle: run enough actions and even the most disciplined defense will start to slip. In Game 2, Denver offered up mistake after mistake, and the Heat—often with Adebayo as the decision-maker—capitalized on those.

In the fourth quarter, Adebayo did what has made Jokic the most dangerous player in the postseason thus far: weaponized his versatility by making the appropriate reads in the moment.

When Christian Braun overplays Robinson’s cut on this screen from Gabe Vincent, Adebayo finds Vincent for a 3. When Bruce Brown stays home on the same play on the next possession, Adebayo finds Robinson for an easy cutting layup.


This mean mug is brought to you by continuity. Much has been (and should be) made about the Jokic-Murray connection, but the chemistry between Adebayo and Robinson—who have played (and developed) together for five years now—is made of similar stuff. In the Finals so far, in 14 handoff actions, the Murray-Jokic combo has generated 1.167 points per chance, per Second Spectrum. Robinson and Adebayo have generated 1.273 points per chance in 13 handoff actions.

When all else fails, Adebayo can turn to the short midrange jumper he’s been honing for years, the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency salve that makes Miami’s two-man game impossible to stop when Adebayo is hitting the right notes. Decision-making hasn’t always been this fluid for Adebayo, who often stymies his own productivity by being too indecisive, but two games in, he has struck a near-perfect balance between scoring and playmaking.

As a result, Miami has appropriated Denver’s style on offense and obstructed it on defense. Adebayo has been instrumental in executing that game plan on both ends, flattening Jokic on defense and playing an inferior version of him on offense. In Game 2, the two centers both had the same number of assists (four) and points created off assists (11). And it was Adebayo, not Jokic, who tied Murray for the most passes made (67) in Game 2.

Miami accomplished this not by shutting down Jokic, who has generated 1.4 points per chance against Adebayo in the post, but by making it harder for him to catch and keep the ball. The real win for Miami won’t show up on the box score, where Jokic dominated in Game 2. It’s that, over two games, Jamal Murray is leading the Nuggets in touches. With the nucleus of the Nuggets offense cut off from the rest of the cell, Denver ended the night with just 23 assists.

Adebayo’s role doesn’t call for him to rack up many blocks or deflections. Instead, Miami asks him to be a fast-moving brick wall that gets in the way of drives before they develop, bothers rather than blocks shots, and deters passes. He is often the solid back-line safety who allows the rest of his teammates to blitz, gamble, and freestyle.

Take his coverage on these back-to-back Jokic-Murray pick-and-rolls:

Adebayo and Butler crowd Murray, who knows better than to try to slip a pocket pass between the two. He over-dribbles just long enough for Max Strus to step into the passing angle to Jokic. He eventually finds Brown on a cut, but the ball slips out of his hands and is retrieved by Vincent.

The Nuggets ran the same action on the right side of the floor. This time, Murray keeps the ball, drives baseline, and jump-passes to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who finds Brown for a 3. It’s a good shot, but the upshot is this: Jokic didn’t touch the ball on either play.

A minute later, with Cody Zeller in the game for Adebayo, the Nuggets ice the pick-and-roll again, but Brown finds Jokic for an easy-entry pass and post-up:

This is the subtle genius of Bam, whose impact is felt most in his absence. Even his most dominant performances rarely return eye-popping box score numbers. But in the 16 minutes that Adebayo has spent on the bench in this series, Miami has been outscored by 19 points. He is not the best player in the league at any one thing, but in two games in the Finals, the cumulative impact of the things he does at a high level has been dominant.