2023 NBA Finals: The Heat’s Winning Identity? Whatever They Need
(Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
MIAMI — Think about the great NBA championship teams of all time. You can find enduring ways to define them.
Michael Jordan's mastery of the midrange and the Bulls' suffocating defense.
Magic Johnson's mastery of the uptempo and how the Lakers ran the floor.
The Celtics' passing and Larry Bird's tough shooting.
The triad Heat's skirmish defense and overwhelming athleticism.
The Warriors' speed and shooting, mixed with a switch-all, small-ball style.
If the Miami Heat do what was previously impossible and become the first No. 8 seed to win the NBA championship, what should be their enduring identity?
People will point to Jimmy Butler's unrelenting ability to get the tough bucket, but in truth, Butler has averaged less and less as the playoffs have advanced. There's a firm belief among those who cover the team that he's still very limited by the ankle injury he suffered in the first round.
The real secret to Miami is its malleability.
The Heat aren't a chameleon. A chameleon, in an attempt to hide, looks like whatever surface is present.
The Heat don't look like a brick wall.
They become the brick wall.
They don't look like a fireball.
They are the fireball.
It's not camouflage. It's alchemy.
Miami doesn't have superstars to go to over and over. Bam Adebayo is a facilitator. He can hit the short roll shots — as he has in this series — run hand-offs — as he has in this series — and defend any player at an extremely high level (with the exception of Nikola Jokic, who no one can defend at this point in time).
Butler is closer to what people think of as a traditional superstar, but he doesn't see himself that way.
"I'm not a scorer," Butler told reporters Tuesday. "Just because I score a lot of points one game, that doesn't make [me] a scorer. I'm not a volume shooter. I don't do any of that. I don't press to score. I only press to win.
"If I pass the ball every possession, if we win, I don't care. If I shoot the ball every possession and we win, I don't care. This Playoff Jimmy narrative is not a thing. I just want to win, along with everybody else. I don't worry about too [many] other things aside from winning."
When the Heat have needed to hit 3s at what is, objectively speaking, an unsustainable rate, they have. They shot 45% vs. Milwaukee and 43% vs. the Celtics. In Game 2 vs. the Nuggets, Miami shot 49% from deep in a game it won by three points.
When the Heat have needed elite defense, they've found it, like they did vs. the Knicks, who had the second-best offense this season.
It's not just series-to-series, either. It's in-game.
The Heat have adapted not to just what the game requires, but to what will give them an edge.
Miami will attack in pick-and-roll one quarter, then in ISO in another. They have used their zone defense very selectively vs. the Nuggets, springing it on Denver in the fourth quarter to disrupt the Nuggets.
Most teams have an identity they want to maintain. The Heat's identity is whatever the situation calls for. How do you prepare to play like that?
"82 games (in the regular season)," Heat guard Max Strus said Tuesday. "We have run every defense. We have run every scheme. [Erik Spoelstra] does a great job preparing us all year to be ready for situations like this, to be able to switch in a timeout, switch a scheme, switch a defense. We have run every single defense with every single lineup this entire season.
"So, it's nothing new to any of us, and we are ready to be plugged in at any point."
Miami has played in a record number of clutch games this season. The Heat have needed to win small over and over. Guard Gabe Vincent credits that with having helped the Heat get to this point.
"We have had a number of close games this season," Vincent said. "Probably [more] than we would have liked, but they helped us prepare for moments like that, when we need to adjust on the fly or, you know, put in a wrinkle, and it's in a pressure situation.
"The more reps you have with that, the less, quote, unquote, pressure you feel, I think."
The conversations about "Heat Culture" are always through vagueness — some sort of undefinable element. While some of that may be true, it's in these performances that the Heat show their identity. They are so strong in their execution that they can solve whatever problem is in front of them, even as an out-talented No. 8 seed.
Miami is three wins away from the first title for a No. 8 seed in NBA history, not because of its identity, but because of its ability to shift into whatever the game demands.