NEW YORK -- Miami Heat big man Meyers Leonard has seen it happen over and over again: A guard on the opposing team runs a pick-and-roll, forces a switch and sees the 6-foot-9, 255-pound Bam Adebayo in front of him. Over the next few seconds, the guard discovers that this is not a mismatch.
It is as if Leonard can hear the guard's inner monologue: "OK, I'm going to try to get past him. Wait a minute, I couldn't get past him." The guard then backs out to try another isolation against Adebayo.
"They're thinking, 'OK, maybe I can create some space, get a good shot up,'" Leonard said. "Then he gets a good contest."
Leonard said this on Sunday at Barclays Center, where Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie spent most of the afternoon torching Miami, to the point where it briefly resorted to blitzing his pick-and-rolls to get the ball out of his hands. In the absence of the injured Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert, Dinwiddie has thrived as the Nets' clear No. 1 option. Down the stretch, the Heat knew where the ball was going.
"We understood that they're trying to get switches onto Dinwiddie," Miami forward Justise Winslow said. "Make that hard. Make 'em play against the clock. Get a stop. Go down and score. The game becomes more simplified towards the end of the game."
Dinwiddie is a tough cover, especially for big men. He is a threat to shoot off-the-dribble 3s, and he doesn't need much room to create them. But when Adebayo switched onto him with 23 seconds left and the Heat up by one, and again on the game's final possession, coach Erik Spoelstra was comfortable.
"Dinwiddie, he takes I think six 3s a game, five of 'em are pull-ups," Leonard said. "So now you're thinking, 'OK if he gets a switch, how the hell are we going to guard this with a big?' No issue with Bam. We're like, 'Please! Please do! We'll box out and go get a rebound.'"
Adebayo takes pride in being able to guard all five positions. He likes the challenge of stopping a playmaker one-on-one. "It doesn't matter if it's Spencer Dinwiddie, Taurean Prince, DeAndre Jordan, I'm trying to win that matchup every time," he said after Miami's 109-106 win. Targeting him is never, in his view, a winning strategy.
"I'm not that type of person," Adebayo said. "I don't feel like you should do that."
Even though he almost never shoots 3s, Adebayo is a thoroughly modern player. NBC Sports' Tom Haberstroh recently coined the term "guardification" to describe big men moving like guards, and perhaps no center is a better example of this. If he had played in a previous era, Adebayo's defensive responsibilities would have included protecting the rim, defending the post, rebounding and little else. Rarely would he have had to venture outside the paint. The job is much more complicated now, and he checks every box.
"Bam, on the defensive end, name something he can't do," Leonard said. "He can stay in front of a guard. He can chase somebody like Joe Harris off a screen and get a good contest. He can guard in the post. He rebounds. I mean, he does it all. And he loves to win, he's a great teammate and at the end of the day, we can really, really count on him to get a stop. Anywhere on the floor."
There are all sorts of reasons to be excited about Adebayo, who has made his pre-draft scouting reports look hilarious by turning into one of the best playmaking bigs in the NBA. His defense, however, deserves special attention, especially with the Heat holding opponents to 103.3 points per 100 possessions, the sixth-best mark in the league. Two days after the Brooklyn game, Adebayo was the primary defender on Pascal Siakam in Toronto. Siakam has almost never looked uncomfortable this season, but he did against Adebayo, finishing with 15 points on 5-for-14 shooting. And sure enough, late in the fourth quarter, Adebayo switched onto point guard Kyle Lowry and got a stop. Miami won 121-110 in overtime, limiting the Raptors to two points on 0-for-9 shooting in the extra frame.
Spoelstra described Adebayo as "relentless." Leonard went with "ridiculous." Winslow said that Adebayo should make All-Defense this season, and "people will start realizing that maybe you'll want your perimeter defender on you rather than Bam." That kind of versatility is a massive luxury at center, and it is particularly valuable in the playoffs, when slow-footed bigs usually get played off the court. Just as a perimeter player who can create a shot out of thin air becomes more important in high-pressure situations, so does this all-world defender whose presence makes those shots more difficult.
And now for another dominant defender
Jonathan Isaac has always been a menace on defense, but the third-year forward has taken it to another level this season. He is blocking a league-leading 2.8 shots a game, and I am stunned every time I see someone try to score against him. Against the Golden State Warriors on Sunday, this went poorly for Eric Paschall and Draymond Green:
The Orlando Magic are a rough watch on offense, but if you can stomach that, it's worth keeping your eyes on Isaac on the other end. Sometimes, he blocks shots with two hands or even grabs the ball straight out of his opponent's hands:
Other times, he blocks shots on his second jump:
Much like Adebayo, Isaac can guard any position. He is more aware than ever as a help defender, and in isolation he is all but impossible to shake. I know everybody wants to give Defensive Player of the Year to Anthony Davis already, but there is a case to be made for Isaac, too.
Time Lord, coming along
I wasn't expecting this pass from Robert Williams:
There is nothing particularly fancy about the play, but it required Williams to read the situation and immediately fire a pinpoint pass to the cutting Semi Ojeleye. Known best for his dunks and blocks, Williams is becoming a more well-rounded player. He hit a midrange jumper and a lefty hook in Brooklyn, and he is earning praise for his decision-making on both ends of the court.
Boston coach Brad Stevens isn't exactly using Williams like Al Horford, but he does involve the big man in the offense as more than a rim runner. And every now and then, he makes plays like this:
Conversations about the Celtics invariably involve potential trades to strengthen their big man rotation. They might indeed make a move there, but the upside of going into the season without a proven starting center is that they get to see what they have in Williams.
A note on Thybulle
Philadelphia 76ers rookie Matisse Thybulle is shooting 43.2 percent from 3-point range, an incredible number considering he went 5 for 21 in his first eight games. The sample size is still pretty small -- he is 16 for 37 -- but if opponents have to guard him on the perimeter, he can complement Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in the halfcourt. Thybulle is already a disruptive defender -- only the San Antonio Spurs' Dejounte Murray averages more deflections than Thybulle on a per-minute basis, and, among players who have logged 200 minutes, no one increases his team's rate of forcing turnovers more, per Cleaning The Glass.
"When he gets his waist over his feet and his shoulders follow and everything's aligned, his balance makes him a really good shooter," 76ers coach Brett Brown said, via The Athletic's Derek Bodner. "He's improving on being able to stop on a dime, almost and find that, but it's step shots. It's side-stepping into a corner, that's his shot right now, not rising up behind dribble handoffs. I think he understands that and I think the shots that he's taking are in his wheelhouse."
Stepbacks are cool, but …
If you're going to do a stepback, step all the way back. Occasionally, a player will come up a bit short and wind up launching a stepback foot-on-the-line 2, and I will lose my mind. Here are a couple of examples, courtesy of Bulls rookie Coby White:
10 more stray thoughts: That Heat win in Toronto was impressive because they did it without Goran Dragic, who has quietly had a phenomenal season coming off the bench … A hell of an interview with Omari Spellman … The Pelicans have lost six straight and could justify dumping a bunch of players, but the middle of the West has been so uninspiring that they could also justify chasing a playoff spot when Zion gets back … Otto Porter wouldn't magically fix the Bulls, but they really miss him … There should be a word stronger than "breakout" for what Devonte' Graham has done … Is Domantas Sabonis an All-Star? … Luke Kennard would get so much more attention if he played for almost any other team … Please watch the Bismack Biyombo Eurostep … Steven Adams is a true original … Lonnie Walker!