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The Fearless Heat Are in the Finals

A fifth-seeded Miami team knocked off two of the East’s top squads in succession and is headed to a championship series where they will again be an underdog. That’s probably just fine with them.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In late July of 2019, after the chaos of the NBA’s annual free-agency period had largely subsided, my editors asked me to break the reshuffled league up into tiers, identifying which teams seemed likeliest to land in the lottery, contend for a championship, or fall somewhere in between. I slotted the Heat among the “Playoff Teams With Some Questions,” suggesting that the arrival of Jimmy Butler as a galvanizing perimeter defender and late-game quarterback, the elevation of Bam Adebayo into a starting role, and better health in the backcourt could—maybe, if everything broke right, potentially—turn Miami into the East’s third- or fourth-best team.

Turns out, I was wrong in two ways. (For the record, Miami finished the regular season fifth in the East.) Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra, and the Heat’s brain trust hadn’t just signed a star in free agency; they’d built a team strong enough to withstand the rigors of the regular season, a matchup with the back-to-back MVP, and the unprecedented disruption of a pandemic that shut the league down for nearly five months—as well as a restart within the alien confines of a bubble at goddamn Disney World.

The toughness and togetherness that has characterized the Heat’s run in Orlando shone through again on Sunday, as they scored a 125-113 win in Game 6 against the Celtics to finish off an impressive 4-2 series victory. Boston’s season has ended in the conference finals for the third time in four years; Miami is advancing to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2014. That summer, LeBron James left the Heat in pursuit of greener pastures. James’s Lakers defeated the Nuggets 4-1 in the Western Conference finals. You’d imagine that Riley and Co. won’t mind the opportunity to show their former superstar just how much things have changed since his exit—how a franchise that seemed to have capped itself out in pursuit of competence after his exit stunningly transformed into a finalist in what feels like the blink of an eye.

Butler’s bona fides as an All-Star scorer and All-Defensive-team-caliber perimeter stopper were already well established before he arrived in Miami. But how he would fare in his first run as a team’s unquestioned no. 1 option and two-way centerpiece loomed as the largest question over an intriguing roster filled with players long on potential but short on established production. The Heat spent this season (and this bubble run in particular) emphatically answering that question and every other one that the pundits had posed: Butler was prepared to do just fine.

Miami’s run to the Finals is a sensational, overwhelming, and overarching success. It’s due in large part to a collection of players whose talents mesh beautifully within the confines of a team concept devoted to motion, ferocity, and unyielding effort. It’s also attributable to an organizational commitment to find and develop those sorts of players—ones with a skill set diverse enough to stay on the floor in the playoffs and a mental makeup strong enough to keep them from crumbling in the postseason crucible. Plenty of credit also belongs to a coaching staff, led by Spoelstra, that is imaginative enough to get the most out of its roster, savvy enough to identify which tactical buttons to push in a playoff series, and adaptable enough to actually make those adjustments in real time to press the advantage and knock opponents on their heels.

Virtually everything the Heat needed to go right this season actually did. But when that happens, it’s not an accident; it’s the mark of an organization that has its shit together, and a testament to players determined to show the world why we should’ve seen them coming.

Butler put to rest all the grumbling about his bedside manner, earning hosannas of praise from his teammates for his willingness to trust them, lift them up, and give them the rock when the game’s in the balance. Adebayo stepped in for Hassan Whiteside and blossomed into a do-it-all game changer worthy of All-Star and All-Defensive second team berths and a second-place finish in Most Improved Player voting, and established himself as a player who protects the rim, distributes the ball, and is the blindingly bright future of the center position.

Goran Dragic abdicated his starting spot due to injuries and circumstance, but transformed himself into one of the league’s best sixth men, and seized his opportunity to return to prominence in the bubble by reentering the starting lineup and fueling Miami’s always churning drive-and-kick offense. Duncan Robinson, undrafted in 2018, soaked up Spoelstra’s belief that he was an elite NBA shooter until he started to buy it himself, and became exactly that. Tyler Herro, decidedly not short on self-belief, earned Spoelstra’s trust with his work ethic and commitment, and then rewarded that trust by dominating the Celtics on the biggest stage of his basketball life.

The lightly regarded Meyers Leonard and former undrafted rookie Kendrick Nunn served as key complementary cogs in one of the best big-minutes lineups in the league during the regular season. They then stepped back, like rocket boosters detaching from a space shuttle, as Miami entered the bubble and Spoelstra unveiled the Heat’s final form: Bam at center; Dragic at point; some combination of Butler, Robinson, Herro, Andre Iguodala, and Jae Crowder on the wing. (Crowder wasn’t the headline piece of the deal with Memphis that imported Iguodala, but the 30-year-old has been arguably the highest-impact acquisition that anybody made at the 2020 trade deadline; he shot 56.4 percent from 3 during the seeding games and 41.7 percent on more than eight attempts a night through Miami’s first 10 playoff games, helping provide the floor spacing that Butler, Adebayo, and Dragic needed to bust up defenses on the interior.)

The post-restart Heat feature speed, shooting, smarts, playmaking, and nastiness all over. It is the perfect rotation to run Spoelstra’s revamped offense until opponents break, and to fluster them with the pressure-packing zone schemes that Spoelstra has, along with Toronto’s Nick Nurse, helped push to the vanguard of NBA defense. The Heat drew a short-handed Pacers team in Round 1, with no Domantas Sabonis and a diminished Victor Oladipo, but then they flat-out bullied the top-seeded Bucks in Round 2, sparking what could be an existential crisis in Milwaukee. And now, they’ve outclassed the Celtics, shipping another would-be favorite back home.

While all the East’s preseason favorites get set for a long, cold offseason, the Heat continue to tweak, to iterate, and to relentlessly push toward perfection. They play on, led by an irrepressible and unapologetically acerbic swingman and a coach finally getting his due as an all-time great; they’re moving forward in lock-step devotion to the shared belief that the only path to greatness is the grind.

“Don’t nobody be on their own agenda here,” Butler told ESPN’s Nick Friedell back in January, a lifetime ago and a million miles away from the shore where the Heat now find themselves. “It’s not about stats. It’s not about fame. It’s not about money. It’s not about none of that. It’s legit about winning a championship, and we’re capable of it.”

It’s right there in front of them now—the opportunity that the rest of us needed to see to believe in, but that Butler knew was real, because he knew his team was real. All that stands between the Heat and the chip are four wins and an opponent that can claim it has the best player in the series. No matter: The Heat fear nothing, and they know who they are. Now, the rest of us do, too.