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The Heat’s All Wasn’t Enough, but It Was Worth Remembering

History will rightfully remember the Lakers winning the title, but we shouldn’t forget the all-time gritty performance from Jimmy Butler and Miami inside the bubble. Chances are, they aren’t going away next season, either.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“I left it all out there on the floor along with my guys,” an impossibly weary Jimmy Butler told reporters after his 47-minute masterpiece on Friday night. We knew it was true in the moment—anyone who watched him walk off the podium could see that—but we wouldn’t learn until Sunday just how true. The bill for that balls-to-the-wall season-saving performance by Butler and Co. came due on Sunday, as it became clear early that, after leaving it all out there on the floor in Game 5, Miami had nothing left in the tank for Game 6.

The Heat never led on Sunday. They barely hung around after opening with a sloppy first quarter—there was a slew of missed layups, floaters, and free throws, and a half-dozen turnovers were instantly alchemized into buckets by a ferocious Lakers transition attack—before crumbling, utterly and completely, in the second. A hot-shooting and energetic Rajon Rondo, making amends for a feckless Game 5, sparked a 36-point offensive explosion. Anthony Davis—playing center from the opening tip, as head coach Frank Vogel made the wise decision to mothball Dwight Howard in favor of renewable battery/Winning Plays™ producer Alex Caruso—led a suffocating defensive charge, limiting Miami to just 16 second-quarter points and putting an exhausted squad in a sleeper hold to turn out the lights on the most chaotic, unprecedented, and unforgettable season in NBA history.

By the final minute of the first half, the Lakers led by 30 and had reached escape velocity; both teams played hard, but everything after halftime was just a matter of accounting. The last images we saw of the 2019-20 Miami Heat featured them dutifully playing out the string in a 106-93 loss before ceding the Walt Disney World stage to the confetti-strewn celebration of LeBron James’s fourth NBA championship, Davis’s first, and the Lakers’ 17th. But stories aren’t only about their final sentences. The earlier chapters matter, too, and so do the ones this Heat team inexplicably managed to write before it all fell apart.

Entering the 2019-20 season, the smart money had the Heat sitting squarely in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack. The Westgate Superbook in Las Vegas pegged their win total over/under at 43.5 games; they won 44 in a 73-game season interrupted and shortened by a pandemic. They went off at +5000 to win the NBA championship, the 14th-best odds in a 30-team league—one spot behind the Pacers, and well behind the Bucks and Celtics, the three teams they beat on the way to the NBA Finals. They came up short in Game 6 on Sunday, but they also went a hell of a lot further than anyone outside South Florida believed they would.

Adding Butler changed everything for Miami—he brought 20 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and two steals per game during the regular season; a statement-making 40-point thunderbolt in Game 1 against Milwaukee; and two of the greatest individual performances in NBA Finals history. But beyond anything he did between the lines, Butler’s arrival gave the Heat an organizing principle—a foundational focal point, on and off the court—and an object lesson in relentlessness that Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra, and the rest of the Miami brain trust could point to as a living, breathing example for every young player on the roster.

Bam Adebayo was already earmarked for a move into Miami’s starting lineup after Hassan Whiteside left town. But with Butler available to partner with him in Miami’s positionless attack, Adebayo developed into one of the league’s most improved players—a game-changing talent who patrols the paint and passes the ball beautifully, whose sudden rise to All-Star and All-Defensive status while still on his rookie contract has cemented him as one of the more valuable young pieces in the league. Tyler Herro entered the NBA dripping with swagger, but Butler taking a shine to him helped the rookie evolve into the kind of dude who could dominate a conference finals game. Duncan Robinson had the size and skill to become a nice piece in the NBA; with the support of Spoelstra and Butler, though, he became one of the league’s premier marksmen, a legit defense-breaker who helped swing a Finals game.

Maybe those youngsters would’ve been just fine anyway. It’s hard to imagine, though, that Butler’s combination of demanding leadership and persistent, gushing promotion didn’t play a role in how the Heat’s season unfolded. After a checkered journey around the NBA that saw Butler exit Chicago, Minnesota, and Philadelphia under less-than-ideal circumstances—and man, does it feel like this Heat run has told us nearly as much about the Bulls, Wolves, and Sixers as it has about Jimmy—Butler successfully rebranded himself this season, and in the bubble in particular, as “the ultimate teammate.” After years of roiling drama and choppy seas, Jimmy established himself as the rising tide that lifted the Heat’s armada of intriguing but untested contributors all the way to the sixth game of the Finals, despite injuries that reduced Adebayo and shelved Goran Dragic for four and a half games before Dragic’s valiant-but-too-little-too-late return on Sunday.

The presence of Butler, the ascent of Adebayo, the resurgence of Dragic, and the emerging talents of Robinson, Herro, and Kendrick Nunn allowed Spoelstra to coach up to the level of his estimable talents. He piloted a malleable, adaptable team that carved opponents up with unceasing ball and player movement, shut them down with a variety of zone and man schemes, and broke them down with peerless conditioning and sheer force of will. Given your druthers, you’d always rather have the team with the greatest player of his generation and an in-his-prime, Hall of Fame–caliber wrecking ball. Short of that, though, you’d have to imagine that this Miami squad is something like Spoelstra’s ideal version of a team—the kind of roster that he can unlock, and that unlocks him in turn. In the moments after Game 6, he let his appreciation for his crew show.

“I think that’s what we’re all looking for, right, is to be part of a family,” Spoelstra said. “To be a part of something where you felt all along that you were searching for something—where you can just be yourself, you don’t have to make any apologies for who you are. We have been searching for [Butler] for a long time, and I think he’s been searching for something like us for a while. Again, you’re in this business to be around amazing people and to develop incredible relationships. It is about the game, it is about winning, but it also is about being around locker rooms that you’ll remember for a long, long time.”

In the years to come, when we think back on this Finals, this bubble, this surreal experience that seemed like an impossible mission at the outset, it’s likely that what we’ll remember most is L.A.’s superstar duo dominating for four consecutive rounds. That’ll be true, mostly, and it’ll be fair; history’s written by the winners, and all that. But as we go back over LeBron inching closer to that ghost he’s been chasing and AD’s arrival on the grandest stage, here’s hoping we’ll spare a thought for Jimmy’s games 3 and 5, and Herro dropping 37, and Bam blocking Jayson Tatum and closing out the Celtics, and the fight with T.J. Warren, and Dragic battling through unimaginable pain in his torn left foot just to get back into the fight, because that’s what made this season so special. It’s what this, all of this, is for.

The Heat did not accomplish their ultimate goal; their season, like those of every team that isn’t the Lakers, ended in defeat. But that doesn’t mean it ends in failure. I wrote it before this series, and I’ll repeat it: Miami’s run to the Finals was a sensational, overwhelming, and overarching success, one attributable to a collection of gifted players whose talents mesh together beautifully, and to an organizational commitment to find, develop, and highlight those sorts of players. They enter the offseason with questions to answer: Playoff starters Dragic and Jae Crowder will hit free agency, as will regular-season starter Meyers Leonard and longtime talisman Udonis Haslem. But they also have a bright future to look forward to, with Butler under contract for three more seasons; the young core of Adebayo, Herro, Robinson, and Nunn all cheap and rapidly improving; a path to max salary cap space in the 2021 offseason; all of the fringe benefits that come with playing in Miami; and leadership wise and stable enough to entice the next rainmaker who might come along.

Maybe none of that will add up to a championship; plenty of excellent teams with great young players think they’ll be in the hunt every year, only to recede after being buffeted by harsh realities. If you had to bet on an organization making the most of its opportunities to go for it all, though, you could do worse than putting your faith in the people who run the Heat, and the newly minted superstar they leaned on until the wheels fell off.

“I told [the team] that I would win them one, and I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain,” Butler told reporters Sunday. “So that means I got to do it next year.”