Nothing’s a given in the NBA and there may not be a team that embodies that tumultuous truth this season better than the Miami Heat.
Last year the team was a juggernaut, finishing first in the East and fighting, at times that felt gladiator-esque, through to the Eastern Conference Finals despite the injuries dogging the team. Despite having a roster that looked to be playing with both a leg and an arm tied, the Heat took the Celtics to seven strenuous games before losing an exhaustedly close game at home. This season, Miami is a team split.
Glance at Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo’s stats and you’d be hard pressed to put them on a team currently sitting seventh in the East, clawing to stay out of the play-in tournament. Butler is averaging a career-high scoring year with 22.6 points per game, a proficiency that has been there all season (he was shooting 50.7% from the field) but has markedly exploded since the All-Star break. Since then, Butler’s averaging 26.1 points, 4.9 assists, and 6.5 rebounds per game, with 60.3% shooting from the field.
Adebayo has seen the same effective, impactful production. In the Heat’s biggest wins he’s been anywhere from +16 to +29, his scoring is the highest in his career at 21 points per game, and his defensive reads and overall fluidity make his brand of basketball not just effective, but beautiful to watch.
The Heat, by comparison, are a lot less easy on the eyes.
In gameplay that looks stilted with scoring droughts that force harried stretches of Hail Mary shooting, where Miami has found themselves as the regular season draws to a close is a team playing in parallel universes — the first where its star duo is flourishing and by the numbers nothing looks wrong, the second, a misfiring group that can’t buy a bucket.
The team has had its share of injury problems this season, and players who were meant to be rotational polestars, like Kyle Lowry, have yet to play and contribute in consistent stretches. Other than picking up Kevin Love at the trade deadline, Miami chose to stay pat, encumbered by salary. Still, these issues feel symptomatic of something larger and many have begun to question whether the team is wasting formative years from Butler and Adebayo.
Perhaps it’s useful to remember this was also a season that saw a supposed-to-be superteam fizzle and blow apart like a firework in its dying arc, has instead seen the uncanny rise of the Kings, and is yet to have a clear front runner for title contention. If there were ever a season that embodied the tumultuous truth of nothing being a given in the NBA, this would be it.
"You've got to embrace the grind,” Heat head coach Eric Spoelstra said last Friday, when the team took a win over a Cavs team that beat them two nights before, “We're fighting for our competitive lives right now. Is this the exact position we want to be in? No. But you do have to embrace the competition. When you're dreaming about things in the middle of the summer, this is what you want.”
It’s the kind of perspective you expect from Spoelstra and any person embedded within the Heat’s rigorous system, but behind the more maniacal ways to read the quote is a stubborn practicality. These conditions, on the brink of defeat and seemingly with no real competitive edge to their name, are for better or worse the place where we’ve seen the Heat come alive.
Butler has long been able to place his team firmly and squarely on his back and carry on, especially in proverbial crunch times. What gets billed as a superhuman ability, or an added gear, is Butler playing the best way he knows how: without quit. Not cinematically, but methodically. In his postgame Friday, a reporter began their question with, “Playoff Jimmy has been activated,” and Butler interjects, “That’s not a real thing,” he says. To imply his effort is something only attainable at certain moments, even if those moments have been critical and clutch, is to undermine its perfectly ordinary, consistent qualities. That the Heat are still hanging around at seventh doesn’t mean the efforts of Butler, or Adebayo, have been wasted this season. On the contrary, they’ve been given meaningful context.
"You want games with incredible pressure and context. You don't want games to have no meaning or to play for lottery balls. You want to have this context and you want to see what this competition can bring out of you,” Spoelstra said after the Cleveland win, “It's going to bring out elation. It's going to bring out frustration. It's going to bring out anger. It's going to bring out joy. It's going to bring out everything in between. This is when you feel most alive is when you're putting yourself out there competitively and you don't necessarily know what's going to happen. When you persevere and come through, you find something about yourselves."
Spoelstra is a good coach, so he chose to contextualize the ups and downs his roster’s faced this season without leaning too far into panic, or some overwrought comeback mode which, while tempting, is not the Heat’s style. No season has its assurances but for a group like Miami, with leaders like Adebayo and Butler, the grantees come in the action itself. Like Butler went on to answer the question about “Playoff Jimmy” being activated, the Heat have an easy choice for how to finish their season — “Just be hooping.”