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Miami’s hopes built on foundation of Bam Adebayo in the paint

Miami Heat v Los Angeles Clippers

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 02: Bam Adebayo #13 of the Miami Heat brings the ball up court during the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers at Arena on January 02, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

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LOS ANGELES — Bam Adebayo dropped 31 on the Clippers last month, and there was no way coach Tyronn Lue would not let that happen again.

He walked in the door with a defensive plan for Monday’s rematch in Los Angeles. Adebayo had torched the Clippers in that first meeting with his quick rolls before the defense could react. Lue made it clear the priority for his team was to get up on him, do not let Adebayo get middle ever, and the low man has to be quick on their rotations to help out as he dives to the rim.

Within the first two minutes of the game, the Heat tested that defensive plan. Twice. Tyler Herro was the ball handler and Adebayo set the pick near the three-point line. The Clippers’ primary defender went over the screen to cut off a Herro 3 while Ivica Zubac played deep, cutting off any roll to the rim. Herro made a quick pocket pass to Adebayo at the nail — he got middle without trouble — and Bam proceeded to knock down two clean 12-foot looks.

That’s the problem Adebayo now presents — take away one thing and he’ll beat you another way. Erik Spoelstra described him as a “Swiss Army knife” player who had evolved his game and made himself a huge threat.

“Bam’s not just some ordinary big, so he can hurt you all over the place whether it’s him handling or him catching it off the roll or lob, literally the outcomes are endless with him as a big and it makes it easier for me to make the right read,” Herro said.

Adebayo again finished with 31 points against the Clippers, this time on 12-of-19 shooting with 13 rebounds. Miami picked up the win, 110-100.

It’s games like this when the Heat are fully healthy — Jimmy Butler played and Miami had its preferred starting five — where you can see how this team could threaten Boston or Brooklyn or any team at the top of the East in a playoff series. Miami plays with grit, they are physical and defend, and they have a couple of guys who can just get buckets.

But it all starts with Adebayo and the growth he has shown — he demanded more touches going into this season and has responded with a career-high 21.5 points per game on 53.9% shooting. He entered the league as a rim runner who could get some points on putbacks, but little more, now he has developed a touch on shots like those 12-foot jumpers against the Clippers.

Adebayo knows who he is and what he wants to do. He’s not standing out by the arc spacing the floor — 18 of his 19 shots against the Clippers were in the paint — but he has developed great touch and timing.

“I think what he’s doing now, probably better than he ever has in his career, he’s reading the defense and what’s called for on each possession,” Spoelstra said. “And I think our guards, Tyler more than anybody, is getting him the ball. So Bam’s scoring rate and finishing rate on assisted opportunities is exceptional.”

All of that offense almost feels like a bonus because Adebayo’s calling card is as one of the best defensive big men in the league, a guy whose name comes up every year in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion. His growth on the offensive end enticed Gregg Popovich to put him on Team USA for the Tokyo Olympics — he could defend European floor-spacing bigs out at the arc but also run the floor and get some points in the paint.

Adebayo’s steady growth has impressed and even surprised some around the league. Not his teammates.

“It’s not a shock. It’s not a shock,” Victor Oladipo said. “I seen over the summer, I’ve seen the work he put in, I’ve seen his growth. It’s no shock to people who’ve seen his grind. So there’s no shock. I’m not surprised he’s having the year he’s having…

“He might not shoot 3s, but he can do everything else though.”

If the Heat are going to become a threat to the contenders in the East — if they are going to be the team they were last playoffs, just a shot away from a return to the Finals — a few things need to come together. Jimmy Butler has to get and stay healthy, then in the playoffs raise his game to the level we’ve seen before, as he did in the bubble. Kyle Lowry needs to find the fountain of youth for a stretch. Heat role players that have been banged up and/or inconsistent this season — Max Strus, Gabe Vincent and others — have to find their rhythm. Tyler Herro has to continue the run he has been on in recent weeks.

But it all starts with Bam Adebayo being an anchor in the paint.

“At the end of the day we need him, and we need him to play at that level,” Oladipo said. “It makes a lot easier for all of us. He trusts his game and we trust his game. He’s been effective.”

More than effective, he’s been the building block for everything the Heat are doing this season, and everything they hope o do.