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The Race for the No. 2 Seed Is Taking Over the NBA

With the Bucks and Lakers so far out in front, this season’s top playoff seeds feel pretty much decided. But the Nuggets and Heat are currently in pole position in a close race for second place. Can they hold on?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Action follows Jimmy Butler wherever he goes. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that he’s not capable of just quietly existing. He is a mood ring of a player; his emotions shift depending on how his team is doing. And right now, the Heat are playing the kind of stellar basketball that gives him the bravado to blow kisses at T.J. Warren mid-ejection, and to completely eviscerate the Pacers forward in his postgame media scrum:

When Warren and Butler got into it in the third quarter of Wednesday night’s game, the Heat were up by 24. Butler shouted, “I’m bustin’ your ass” at Warren, and though Butler wasn’t having his best game, he also wasn’t wrong. Miami looked dominant. The 122-108 win bumped the Heat’s record to 27-10 and kept them in the no. 2 spot in the East. Not even the biggest proponent of Miami and Butler’s fit on this team could have seen this level of early success coming, and as of now, the Heat appear to be well positioned to finish atop one of the two most interesting playoff races this season: the chases for second place.

With the Bucks and the Lakers streaking to large leads atop each conference—five games for Milwaukee, four for the Lakers—the race for the no. 2 seed has become the new race for the no. 1 seed. The Heat are up one game on Boston in the East. Denver has just a half-game lead over Houston in the West, and because the midlevel seeds in both conferences are locked so closely together, it’s hard to envision a scenario where any team runs away with either no. 2 seed (and the right to avoid the Bucks and Lakers until the conference finals). The Celtics and Rockets have kinks they need to work out, but they’re both threatening sights in the rearview mirror. Just behind Houston, the Clippers seem to be pacing themselves for a late-season burst, and if the Raptors can get healthy, they’re more than capable of erasing a two-and-a-half-game deficit. Even with those teams lurking, though, stability lies with the two franchises who currently hold a lead—and they are perhaps the two teams best constructed to finish the season with one.

While Butler is making the most out of being the Heat’s vocal leader, Nikola Jokic is doing the same with his play. Despite a sluggish start to the season, Jokic is now playing at an All-NBA level, and Denver has followed suit. The Nuggets pulled off a six-game winning streak in late November, then a seven-game winning streak in December. And with Jokic rolling and Denver sitting at 26-11, the Nuggets once again look like the second-best team in the West.

The Nuggets and the Heat (both of whom are bottom-6 in the league in pace) have been built for strong regular-season performances. Miami’s early success is more surprising than Denver’s, as the Nuggets finished as the no. 2 seed last season, but before the 2019-20 season began, all the attention in the West was centered on the L.A. teams, Houston, and even Utah. That’s largely because nothing had changed with the Nuggets. But that continuity is one of their strongest traits. Just like last season, Denver is posting a top-10 offense and a top-12 defense, and now the team is slowly adding rookie Michael Porter Jr.’s tantalizing perimeter scoring into the mix.

The Heat, on the other hand, are essentially a brand-new team. They’ve come on to the scene loudly, and also boast a top-10 offense and a top-12 defense. Butler, who came to Miami in a sign-and-trade this offseason, has fit in perfectly with the Heat’s foundation and overall vibe. He immediately took on a leadership role in Miami (in an almost over-the-top way) and seems to have embraced being the wise veteran on a young team.

On Butler’s Instagram, you won’t just find him calling out Warren and circling the next Pacers-Heat game on his schedule; you will also find wholesome pictures with Heat rookie Tyler Herro (#TylerTuesdays), who has contributed to the team right away—much like Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson—and posts shouting out Goran Dragic in his native language. This marriage between team and player feels long overdue, and the fact that it’s clicked so quickly is a testament to the culture Pat Riley built and coach Erik Spoelstra held together despite some rough post-LeBron years. Like the Nuggets, the Heat were constructed on a bedrock of depth, drafting, and development, and they seem like one of those rare squads that can go 10 deep and not fall off a cliff.

Denver seems closer to leveling up than Miami, with Porter bringing a new wild-card element to this team. But the Heat could also package some of their assets to make a trade that would turn them into unimpeachable contenders. Either way, the teams behind them won’t be standing pat. Indiana will be getting Victor Oladipo back, Luka Doncic could go off on another tear, and the Sixers may turn into world-beaters for a stretch. Grabbing the no. 2 seed is paramount for any team looking to make it to within a series of the Finals, and with so many teams in the tier just below the Lakers and the Bucks, there’s a lot of hope in the air this season. The Heat and the Nuggets have turned that hope into a whole lot of wins so far, and they also seem best positioned to finish this race on top—or, well, close to it.