Sitting at the podium in Miami after last year’s Game 7 loss, Jimmy Butler was undaunted when he said the Miami Heat would be back, and next time the outcome would be different.
For so much of the season, that prediction appeared foolish. Butler did not care. In fact, he doubled down. When the team started 2-5, he told the Athletic that the Heat were going to win the championship. After a late-season loss in Orlando, he blithely sang along to Nickelback in the locker room.
And even after losing three straight games against the Boston Celtics in these East finals, Butler remained steadfast. The Heat lost Game 4 to a desperate Celtics team in Miami. (“We are going to go get one on the road.”) The Heat lost Game 5 in Boston. (“We will win this series. We’ll just have to close it out at home.”) When they didn’t, losing in heart-wrenching fashion on a Derrick White tip-in at the buzzer, Butler’s public stance did not change.
“We’re going to go in there,” Butler proclaimed, “and we’re going to win.”
Fortunately for Miami, Butler needed only to be right once. That’s what happened on Monday night, when the Heat defeated the Celtics, 103-84, on their parquet floor. Now the Heat are four wins away from validating Butler’s vision.
“You have to have a guy that you can hold on to, particularly in those moments of truth,” Spoelstra said of Butler after the Game 7 win. “I’ve said this before, there’s no way to quantify the confidence that he can instill in everybody. And Jimmy has never had to apologize. I don’t want him to ever apologize for who he is and how he approaches competition.”
The Heat will follow Butler into the NBA Finals, where they will face the mighty Denver Nuggets. Game 1 is Thursday, June 1. The Nuggets have been waiting to learn their opponent since advancing past the Lakers last Monday.
“The Heat are playing at an unbelievably high level,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after winning the West finals. “Jimmy Butler, what he’s been doing … is just historical in nature. And Erik Spoelstra … obviously Spo is one of the best coaches in the league.”
There’s no other way to put it: This run has been shocking.
Spoelstra often cites the “beauty in the grind” of this season. Last year’s No. 1 seed, the Heat never quite found their footing from October to early April. Players missed a league-leading 260 games to injuries and every role player shot worse from 3-point range than the season prior, when the Heat were the league’s best 3-point shooting team.
Before going 12-6 in the postseason, the Heat went 44-38 and finished with a negative point differential during the regular season. They then lost their first play-in game to the Hawks and needed a late comeback to beat the Bulls and make the playoffs.
The No. 8 seed Heat then demolished the No. 1 seed Bucks, dispatched the higher-seeded Knicks and took a 3-0 lead over a Celtics team that finished the regular season with 13 more wins. It appeared Miami’s ticket to the Finals was all but stamped, but what had been a historic run nearly teetered into an all-time collapse. Had they lost Monday night, the Heat would have become the first team in NBA history out of 150 to blow a 3-0 series lead in the playoffs.
Instead, Butler mustered whatever he had left for this series, pouring in 28 points, seven rebounds, six assists and three steals while spending much of the game limping from one end of the court to the other. When Miami’s offense bogged down for a stretch in the fourth quarter, he ruthlessly attacked Jayson Tatum, who was limited since turning his left ankle on the game’s first possession. It was enough for Butler to be (somewhat relunctantly) named the Eastern Conference finals MVP.
Caleb Martin stepped up with a stellar 26 points on 11 of 16 shooting and 10 rebounds. Bam Adebayo — with a virtuoso defensive performance — also sprung Miami’s 3-point shooting (14 of 28 on the night). Duncan Robinson, after missing a pair of crucial 3s down the stretch of Game 6 in Miami, easily made two important 3s in Boston. After the last one, he held his hand up to his ear to let the Boston crowd know he had silenced a once-raucous group.
Even after losing three straight to the Celtics, the Heat never lost confidence. They were the better team on balance, and they knew it. Across seven games, they took care of the ball, made more shots and were more disciplined in executing their game plan.
What powered this remarkable turnaround? The Heat started making shots that they didn’t make in the regular season. Players, when asked why the shots are going in over these past few weeks, credit Butler, Adebayo and Spoelstra’s leadership.
“It’s hard not to gain confidence, gain rhythm, and want to make shots for those guys,” Martin said.
But it’s more than just making shots. Spoelstra’s coaching and Butler’s ramped-up aggression steadied the team. Make or miss, the Heat won’t beat themselves. They hardly turn the ball over (they give up the ball on only 13.3% of their possessions), they always have a plan on offense and they defend in waves of schemes and eager bodies.
Against the Bucks, Butler looked like vintage LeBron James playing in space, driving downhill against mismatches and either scoring or kicking out to open shooters. For the Knicks series, Butler morphed into a facilitator, passing over the top of New York’s double-teams, and the Heat transformed into a rugged rebounding, loose-ball gobbling squad.
All those threads tied neatly together for the first three games of the Eastern Conference finals. Butler scored and made plays, Adebayo dominated the paint on defense, supporting players made jumpers and attacked closeouts and Spoelstra rightly anticipated every Celtics adjustment.
Then the Celtics ripped off three straight wins, putting the pressure squarely on the Heat. In Games 4 and 5, the Heat looked slow, as if the grueling postseason run had finally caught up with them. In Game 6, Spoelstra made a starting lineup change, swapping Martin in for Love. The result was the jolt the team needed and nearly delivered the final win after Miami clawed back from down 10 points in the fourth quarter. Butler calmly made three free throws to take a brief lead, vaporized in a calamitous three seconds.
“I’m not going to say losing three in a row is part of the Heat culture we like to talk about, because we don’t play to lose and we don’t want to lose,” Butler said. “But we have some hoopers. We have some real-deal basketball players that can score, can defend and can pass and can win games for us.”
There has never been a team quite like these Heat. They are the first eighth seed in a full regular season to advance to the NBA Finals. They will still be the overwhelming underdogs, just as they’ve been this entire run.
The Nuggets are, in some ways, the opposite of the Heat. They had the West’s best record for most of the season and were expected to get to this point. Led by two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, they would be a deserving champion.
In other ways, these teams are similar. Both take care of the ball, prod defenses for better looks and goad opponents into making mistakes. They were the most efficient teams of the playoffs, led by the two best players of the postseason.
There’s time for in-depth previews and breakdowns of this matchup but, if this improbable run has taught us anything, it’s to doubt the Heat at your own risk. As Butler said, they believe this year is their year.
“I’m just confident,” Butler said. “I know the work that we all put into it, so I know what we’re capable of. Nobody is satisfied. We haven’t done anything. We don’t play just to win the Eastern Conference — we play to win the whole thing.”