The Heat haven’t been to the conference finals since the final year of the Big 3 era in 2014 when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh capped a four-year run to the NBA Finals with a loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
The road back to the NBA’s final four has been a rough ride for team president Pat Riley. It started with the pain of James leaving Miami to return home to Cleveland. It included Bosh’s career being cut short by blood clots, and then Wade, the beloved face of the franchise, leaving in free agency before Riley traded to bring him back for a short-lived playoff run two seasons ago.
Dragic was the first player Riley acquired, via trade in 2015, after LeBron James had left. Dragic was supposed to form a new Big 3 with Bosh and Wade but never got the chance. He and Wade took the Heat to Game 7 of the conference semifinals against Toronto in 2016 before falling.
5 years later Dragic is proving Riley right as he was a leading force in the Heat upsetting the Bucks.
“It means a lot,” said Dragic, who was named an All-Star reserve in 2018. “If I look back, we never had a chance to play with (Bosh). D-Wade, then he left. It was a lot of ups and downs, but I’m happy that we finally made it. We’re still not done. It’s going to be a grind, but so far, so good. So I’m enjoying every game, every day, and hopefully, we can continue to play like that.”
Riley continued to build and reshape his roster while never hitting the tanking button. And some of his decisions where criticized at the time for being quick fixes rather than correct fixes.
The Heat roster that is currently in the Conference Finals, was built with a collection of spare parts. It includes undrafted rookie free agents (Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn), two late lottery picks (Adebayo and Tyler Herro) and an All-Star max player (Butler) who earned a reputation in Minnesota and Chicago for being unable to play nice with others.
Nobody envisioned Duncan Robinson becoming one of the most lethal 3 point shooters in the league, or Nunn finishing top 3 in ROY voting. Bam Adebayo has developed into a top 5 big man in the league, while Tyler Herro appears to have all the stuff comprised of a cold blooded killer late in games.
And then there is Jimmy Butler. Nobody wanted to touch him after his built up reputation of being a bad locker room guy. Pat Riley didn’t care about any of that, he knew the Heat culture, Butler’s ability and what he wanted to build in Miami. Butler’s mentality matches that of Riley, who’s been tough and rigid since coaching the New York Knicks in the 90’s.
Speaking of the 90’s, this Heat team has a lot in common with some of Riley’s rivals of the 90’s.
The 1994 Reggie Miller-led Indiana Pacers and the 1994 Karl Malone-John Stockton-led Utah Jazz were both No. 5 seeds who made the Conference Finals. But they fell short of making the NBA Finals. And so have the other 3 No.5 seeds to reach he conference finals: the 2013 Grit and Grind Memphis Grizzlies, the Tom Chambers’ 1990 Phoenix Suns, and the Otis Birdsong’s 1981 Kansas City Kings.
The Heat (8-1 in these playoffs) wait to face the winner of the Boston-Toronto series as they try to become the first No. 5 seed to advance to the NBA Finals.
This Heat team, though, has the makings of a team capable of making the NBA Finals. They dismantled the team with the best regular-season record in the league, which led the NBA in scoring, defense and rebounding and also crushed teams in the paint and in transition behind the guy expected to be named MVP for the second year in a row.
On paper you’d ask: How?
But the answer won’t be found on paper, rather on the hardwood where the Miami Heat give max effort for 48 minutes.
Miami out-rebounded the Bucks by 22, hit 21 more 3-pointers than them and outscored them by 36 points when their star player was on the floor.
They took it to the top seeded Bucks, never letting taking their foot off the gas. But playing hard is only one aspect of this team. The Heat’s star player is Jimmy Butler, a two way wing, but not necessarily a dominant scorer. His play-style is in many ways the identity of the Heat.
No single player is going to dominate. Rather the Heat elect to come at you in every which way. Miami has had several games in these playoffs with six or seven scorers finishing in double figures.
Robinson and Herro knocking down 3 after 3.
Dragic using his crafty moves and veteran playmaking to find his way to the rim with ease.
Adebayo doesn’t need the ball to dominate, he simply crashes the boards and finishes at the rim when given the opportunity.
The bench unit of Nunn, Kelly Olynyk, Andre Iguodala, and Jae Crowder are each capable of having big games scoring and defending.
And of course Butler is most capable of dropping a 40 point game, like he did in Game 1 on the series to set the tone.
The Heat will be the underdogs in the Conference Finals, regardless of if it’s a matchup with the defending champion Raptors or the baby face assassin Celtics.
The narrative began on TNT’s “Inside The NBA” post game show.
“As good as Miami is defensively, you ain’t gonna stop them three boys,” Barkley said referring to Boston’s scoring trio of Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown, who each averaged more than 20 points per game in the regular season. “And I think Marcus Smart can handle Jimmy Butler. Or he can lock up one of those other guys. Boston … they’re deep. I think Boston is the best team in the Eastern Conference right now.”
You can’t hate on Barkley’s analysis, he’s got some evidence to back it up. The Celtics took two of three from the Heat in the regular season. But Miami won the most recent matchup inside the bubble, which featured Crowder and Iguodala on the roster, who were not on the Heat in the first two matchups.
We can’t sleep on Crowder’s addition. Outside of Butler, Dragic and Adebayo, Miami’s three leading scorers in the conference semis, Crowder had the most impactful series against Milwaukee. He averaged 15.2 points per game and shot 43.1 percent from the field, while averaging 4.4 3-pointers made per game and displaying excellence on the defensive end.
“Jae has been to the conference finals. He has been on a lot of winning teams,” Spoelstra said. “There are so many different qualities that we had him tagged as a Miami Heat-type guy. He has lived up to all of them, if not more. He has really surprised me. It’s his leadership qualities in the locker room that have really helped. And it feels like he has been with us for years rather than just months. That kind of leadership helps with guys like Tyler (Herro).”
He could be a huge player for the Heat if matched up against the wing heavy Boston Celtics.
But the Heat are comfortable with being deemed underdogs. Most of their roster have been just that since entering the league. The medias narrative won’t bother the Heat, nor will the jabs Barkley takes at them in TNT. If anything it will fuel the Heat to continue shocking the world.