Miami Heat: Anatomy of an underdog
MANILA, Philippines—The Miami Heat will open as heavy underdogs against the Denver Nuggets in the 2023 NBA Finals, which tip off on Friday (Manila time) in Denver, Colorado.
That’s been the case for the Heat all season long after barely making the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Just a month ago, the Heat were five minutes away from elimination against the Chicago Bulls in the play-in tournament.
Hard to believe they’re now only four wins away from a seemingly improbable championship run after finally putting away the Boston Celtics in Game 7 on the road in a series where they were only given a three percent chance of winning.
The path to get to the NBA Finals, however, was a steep climb from where the Heat began.
The Heat were also written off and counted out heading into their first round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, who were the best team in the league and the consensus favorite to win the title.
But the Heat couldn’t care any less about what the skeptics thought and what the spread looked like.
“Playoff Jimmy” wasn’t a myth as Jimmy Butler’s herculean effort carried the shorthanded Heat past the Bucks in five games.
Miami became just the fifth eighth seed to advance to the second round after the Denver Nuggets in 1994, New York Knicks in 1999, Golden State Warriors in 2007 and Memphis Grizzlies in 2011.
Still, despite a historic upset, the Heat found themselves as the lesser pick in its rivalry series with the New York Knicks, whom they knocked off in six.
The Heat made more history after fending off the No. 2 Celtics in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals, becoming only the second-eighth seed to reach the Finals.
With the ultimate goal within reach, Miami certainly has no plans of slowing down.
“We don’t play just to win the Eastern Conference, We play to win the whole thing,” said Butler.
Butler has been doing it all for the Heat, once again proving on the playoff stage that he’s one of the best players in the league today.
The 33-year-old forward is averaging 28.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.7 assists through 17 games in the postseason, which included a 56-point masterpiece in Game 4 against the Bucks.
With Butler at the forefront, the Heat booked their second NBA Finals berth in four years despite losing two key cogs in Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo to injuries in the first round. Butler and the Heat lost to the Los Angeles Lakers back in the 2020 NBA Finals in the bubble.
In Game 7 against the Celtics, Butler had a game-high 28 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
“You have to have a guy that you can hold on to, particularly in those moments of truth. I’ve said this before, there’s no way to quantify the confidence that he (Butler) can instill in everybody,” coach Erik Spoelstra said.
“And you know, Jimmy has never had to apologize. I don’t want him to ever apologize for who he is and how he approaches competition. It’s intense. It’s not for everybody, and we’re not for everybody. That’s why we think it’s like an incredible marriage. We never judge him on that. He doesn’t judge us for how crazy we get. It’s the same language. But the confidence level that he can create for everybody on the roster is incredible,” Spoelstra added.
Not bad for someone taken last in the first round of the draft in 2011.
THE UNDRAFTED CREW
But as brilliant as Butler has been, the Heat won’t come this far without their supporting cast, four of whom went undrafted and are a product of Heat culture.
Unheralded players in Caleb Martin and Gabe Vincent have been the biggest revelations amid the Heat’s Cinderella campaign while Max Strus and Duncan Robinson have also had their moments.
Martin was waived by the Charlotte Hornets in August 2021 before getting picked up by the Heat a month later on a two-way contract. In July 2022, Martin earned a three-year, $20 million deal and he’s been showing his worth in these playoffs.
“That might have surprised ya’ll. To the untrained eye, he just looks like he’s an undrafted guy who’s been in the G League, who started in Charlotte and now he’s here. Started on a two-way contract. To ya’ll that’s what it looks like. To us, he’s a hell of a player, hell of a defender, playmaker, shotmaker, all of the above,” said Butler of Martin.
“Everybody’s seen Caleb work on those shots day in and day out. It doesn’t surprise us. We’ve seen it every single day and I’m so proud and happy for him and he’s going to be even better in this next round and I don’t think he’s going to be a surprise to anybody else any longer.”
The 6-foot-5 forward erupted for a playoff career-high 26 points on 11-of-16 shooting from the field that helped set the tone for Miami in Game 7 against Boston. He came just a vote short of taking home the NBA Eastern Conference Finals MVP plum.
“It’s been amazing. If you’re a real competitor, and it’s in your soul, and that’s what Caleb is, he’s a competitor. You get to the higher stakes, the further you get along, the more competitors are going to reveal themselves,” Spoelstra said.
“Game 7s, or get to the Conference Finals, it’s not for everybody in this association. Otherwise more players, more teams would do it. You have to be wired a little bit differently, and Caleb is. He’s pure. He competes on both ends. Lays it all out there for everybody to see. He’s accepted different roles.”
Vincent, who spent most of his time in the G League before signing with the Heat, has also shown he’s built for the bright lights.
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) May 30, 2023
“I just think that the guys that coach Spo and coach Pat put together when a guy goes down, the next guy can fill that gap and do exactly what that guy did and do it at a high level and then be humble enough to know that when that guy comes back you gotta take a step back and get back in your role,” Butler said.
“And nobody ever complains. They always do what you exactly ask of them to do which is why you wanna play with guys like that, which is why they’re the reason why we win so many games. I don’t call them role players, I call them teammates because your role can change any given day, especially with how many games I’ve missed, in and out of the lineup, off nights, whatever you call them.”
The 26-year-old Vincent has also shown what Heat culture is about, taking his game to the next level when his team needed him most. The 6-foot-3 guard played his best game yet in Game 3 of the NBA East Finals where he propelled the Heat to a 3-0 series lead with 29 points.
“With Tyler [Herro] and Vic [Oladipo] out, we’ve needed more offense. Quite frankly, we’ve needed more guys like Gabe [Vincent] and Caleb to show how much they have improved with their player development,” Spoelstra said.
RISE OF SPO
Coach Erik Spoelstra also has his own underdog story to tell.
Spoelstra started his career with the Heat as the team’s video coordinator in 1995 and worked his way up until he was promoted to head coach in 2008.
Spoelstra, whose mother hails from Laguna in the Philippines, was personally selected by then-coach Pat Riley when he stepped down from his post. He was the first Asian-American to become NBA head coach.
After a string of playoff exits and an NBA Finals debacle in 2011, Spoelstra steered the Heat to back-to-back championships in 2012 and 2013 behind LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
On Tuesday, Spoelstra moved to fourth with six NBA Finals appearances as head coach tying Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr and Johnny Kundla.
Despite his championship pedigree, Spoelstra has yet to win NBA Coach of the Year.
FAR FROM DONE
Miami’s fairytale run continues on Friday against a fresh Denver side that swept its way to a maiden NBA Finals stint.
The odds are bleak for the Heat.
But perhaps they have the Nuggets where they want them.
“We got belief that we can do something incredibly special. So we’re going to hit the ground running when we get to Denver and uh, I like our chances,” Butler said. –Art by Marlo Cueto/INQUIRER.net