The Miami Heat are locked in a fight against memory. They know—and we know—the team they were: the vibrant, resourceful contenders who stormed through the 2020 playoffs, letting up only when injuries and the Lakers finally got the best of them. They’re also painfully aware—even more so than we are—of the team they’ve been this season. “We haven’t been playing good basketball,” Jimmy Butler conceded last week, disgust in his voice. “If you don’t play good basketball, you lose.” Miami had played the kind of basketball that earned losses to Washington, Detroit, and Orlando along its way, a tic-tac-toe of Eastern Conference misery.
There is no straight and orderly explanation to any of this, or to how one version of the Heat became the other. It’s the cost of injury; it’s COVID-19 and the strain it puts on a roster; it’s the way opposing defenses have adapted to Miami’s style of play; it’s the unforgiving pace of an expedited season; it’s the satisfied exhale of a team that relies on maximum effort to win. It’s all of it. A few of those variables have finally begun to settle, and the Heat, in their relief, have strung together three consecutive wins for the first time this season.
“I think it’s more than making it feel like it did last year,” says Tyler Herro, a breakout star in the bubble who, in Miami’s struggles, moved to the bench. “I don’t think we can duplicate that feeling. But these past couple games, we’ve just been playing together, playing for each other, and you can see the result that comes from that.”
Part of the Heat’s acclimation to the strangeness of this season came from learning to let go of what they had. There was no way for Miami to be the same team when Butler has missed half the team’s games to date, most due to the league’s COVID-19 protocols and many in the compounding absence of some other injured or contact-traced teammate. Miami has played just two games this season with its full rotation. Even their latest wins have come with Goran Dragic and Avery Bradley missing from the lineup, circumstances that anointed former G Leaguer Gabe Vincent as a newly necessary reserve. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Heat, despite their bubble-born continuity, have often played with all the chemistry of casual acquaintances. The story of their season could be told in blown handoffs and missed rotations. That’s the natural result of a constantly shifting and staggered rotation, as illustrated here. Games in which a player appeared are shown in red; games missed are grayed out:
Heat opponents have dedicated a lot of their defensive capital this season to denying shooters, and with that, limiting the movement that would otherwise propel Miami’s offense. Duncan Robinson doesn’t go anywhere unchaperoned; teams will now organize their coverage around the way he and Herro move around the floor, bogging down actions before they even have time to develop. If Butler and Bam Adebayo are both on the floor, the Heat can upend that sort of defensive caution with sudden bursts to the basket. Take Butler out of action, however, and the flourishes of Miami’s curls and cuts can start to feel like empty embellishment. Respect for Miami’s shooters has become the crux of an entire game plan. When Adebayo (whose own scoring game has grown considerably this season) has tried to anchor the offense without Butler, the Heat have been a mess on par with the worst-scoring teams in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass. Going without Butler or Dragic has been even more catastrophic—full of long, spiraling possessions that go nowhere at all and bring the entire offense to collapse on itself.
It was worth Miami’s time to at least try playing Herro as a nominal point guard, but without Butler that proved to be an unstable combination—too turnover-prone and too stunted on offense, even with Adebayo sharing the administrative work. The lineup carousel allowed Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to start nearly every possible option around Adebayo, Herro, and Robinson, leading to 16 different lineup permutations featuring 14 different players. (Poor Chris Silva.) Without Butler, none of them really worked.
“That’s an All-Star,” Adebayo explains. “That speaks for itself. I shouldn’t have to explain that. It will always be different when he is on the court than off the court. He’s Jimmy Butler for a reason.” Not having Butler turned complications into problems for the Heat and problems into losses. Miami is winning Butler’s minutes by a significant margin whenever he’s on the floor this season and winning the majority of its games when he suits up to play. He is a swaggering source of optimism for a team that currently sits at 10-14, tied for the 10th best record in a sour Eastern Conference. Somehow, in spite of everything, that puts the Heat just three and a half games out of third place.
“Nothing’s ever really as bad as it seems,” Butler says, “or as good as it seems, at the same time.”
Let that be a lesson whenever the Eastern Conference champion Heat becomes a daunting point of comparison. A team can be only as successful as its context allows, and this current team’s context has allowed for little. That doesn’t excuse Miami’s uncharacteristic negligence in its earlier games. It doesn’t fix defensive miscues or give a dragging lineup the jump-start it needs to actually guard. It does, however, help explain why Spoelstra and his team have emphasized process even in the frustration of their losses.
“That’s the discipline, mentally, is being able to separate really disappointing results to the progress that we’re making,” Spoelstra says. “Our offense has been trending—since Jimmy’s been back, it’s been trending the right way. You see a lot more familiar possessions where there’s ball movement, more guys involved, our driving, attacking game is much more consistent. Guys feel a little bit more comfortable in what’s expected of them.”
That’s the sound of an ecosystem slowly returning to balance. Spoelstra spoke to a change in the habits of his team in the past two weeks, in spite of his players’ flickering availability. “It was tough to keep track of who was in what team meeting and what film session and what pivotal huddle where we had a breakthrough,” he says. In some wins, like the Heat’s latest pair against the Knicks, scheme drives effort; Miami’s defense came alive when it started trapping New York’s ball handlers, turning routine pick-and-rolls into trials by fire. In other moments, outstanding individual efforts—like Adebayo shutting down consecutive possessions, fueling a one-man run—give an edge to familiar tactics.
One way or another, the Heat are finding their energy again. For weeks, their flexible coverage had gone soft and pliable—perhaps as a casualty of the way a stifled offense can drain the defensive possession that follows it. Miami isn’t yet at peak ferocity, but the contrast has been stark:
Two Weeks in Miami
“I like how hard we’re playing,” Butler says. “I think we can still go up another notch, another level. Second efforts, getting the ball when it’s on the floor or whenever it’s in the air. I think that’s who we are supposed to be. Who we say that we are.” And, in time, who they could be again.