Why Jimmy Butler and company are a darkhorse to make it out of the Eastern Conference.
Last Saturday night, as seconds melted off the clock, Heat fans looked on in dismay as it appeared Miami was preparing to relinquish its undefeated record at home against the rival Philadelphia 76ers. That was until 19-year old rookie Tyler Herro dribbled the ball up the court, drifted toward the right-wing, stepped back, and hurled a three-point grenade at the basket. Boom! The shot went down, and Miami forced overtime. Later they would survive to upend the Sixers. That game was a microcosm of Miami's season thus far, unlikely heroes embracing the spotlight and a team infected with the will to win.
On back-to-back nights Miami had knocked off two highly touted conference foes in Indiana and Philadelphia, remaining undefeated in American Airlines Arena through 38 games. With every gut-wrenching, down-to-the-wire, nail-biting victory, the Miami Heat are forcing the sports world to turn its attention to South Beach once again. Last time Miami captured the national media's admiration, the team was fueled by star power. Now, they are one of the most complete rosters in league with one of its most unselfish and hard-nosed stars leading the way.
After an 11-3 start, there's a roaring buzz around Miami. President of Business Operations explained to the Miami Herald, "It's not just that we're winning, I think it's the style of play that people are seeing. The team is so unselfish and they seem to be rooting for each other as much as they are for themselves. I think it's not always that way in the NBA. So I think it has caught the attention of not just the local populous, but it's starting to catch the attention of the national audience, as well."
Butler's Decision To Go To Miami & Critics
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Critics lambasted Jimmy Butler for endorsing a trade to Miami from Philly, pontificating that the move meant Butler didn't have an interest in truly competing for a title. They felt the former all-star only wanted financial security in a golden parachute from Miami - escaping any pressure and absolving himself of the responsibilities reserved for a true superstar. The critics couldn't have been more wrong. Butler put theories about his competitive drive to bed in short order leading Miami to its best start in franchise history. Yes, even better than any of the four years LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh donned Heat uniforms. With an offense that ranks top 10 in efficiency and a defense that ranks 3rd overall, Miami is a force to be reckoned with this young season.
While he has been maligned for a poor shooting percentage, Butler is quietly having the best season of his career. A top 10 MVP candidate, the Marquette product, is also in the running for the NBA all-defensive team. He's been one of the league's most clutch players. The former Sixer is scoring 3.8 points per game in clutch situations -- defined as a five-point game. Within the final five minutes -- he ranks fifth among all qualifying players, and his 119.8 clutch offensive rating is nearly identical to Kawhi Leonard.
These qualities remind Head Coach Erik Spoelstra of an all-time Heat great from years past. Spo told Fox Sports during a post-game press conference "Let's just talk about when it really mattered, how many right plays did he make — that's a quality that reminded me of Dwyane (Wade). It doesn't matter how the game was going through 40-something minutes, when it's closing time, clutch time. Dwyane had an ability to do that too, put everything aside and just say okay let's go win this game. And play your best minutes and have your biggest plays then. That's what Jimmy was able to do. Every play that needed to be made down the stretch, he made it." Butler is the apotheosis of what the Heat stand for. A living embodiment of the organization's core values or the "Heat culture."
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A lot is made of the "culture" inside the Heat organization. There's even merchandising, marketing and social media campaign centered around the verbiage. Players who sign here often speak wide-eyed and glowingly about just that. The tone around the organization begins with its architect, Pat Riley. Before Riley joined the Heat in 1995, there wasn't much of a culture at all.
The 1988 expansion team floundered for much of its existence leading up to Riley's hiring as President. In short order, however, he would bring the organization to relevance; building a culture and eventual appetite for basketball in South Florida. The first blockbuster deal Riley made was trading for the would-be two-time defensive player of the year Alonzo Mourning. And in many ways, Mourning set the standard for now praised "Heat Culture."
Cultivating a team in Miami starts with signing and drafting players who believe in the Heat way of doing things. Along with "Heat Culture," there's another famous saying around the organization "we're not for everybody," a testament to the demanding but eventually productive environment Riley has founded. Selecting the right brand of player is very important. It's imperative they know it's not about them, it's about them coming here and fitting into the master design. It's fair to assume the primary reason Miami moved on from Hassan Whiteside was his unwillingness to fit in with the culture. That and Miami had a monster tucked away in third-year center Bam Adebayo.
The Emergence Of Bam Adebayo
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If the NBA season ended today, there is a good chance Bam Adebayo would be voted first-team All-Defense. The Kentucky product takes pride in being able to defend all five positions. His ability to switch, close-out, rotate, recover, play off-the-ball, on-the-ball are all a sight to behold. He checks every box. NBA Math ranks Adebayo third, behind only Antetokounmpo and Andre Drummond in DPS or defensive points saved.
Meyers Leonard explained to CBS Sports writer James Herbert about Bam, "He can stay in front of a guard. He can chase somebody like Joe Harris off a screen and get a good contest. He can guard in the post. He rebounds. I mean, he does it all. And he loves to win, he's a great teammate and at the end of the day, we can really, really count on him to get a stop. Anywhere on the floor."
He's even hailing praise from some NBA legends, "This kid, Bam Adebayo, is a monster," TNT's Charles Barkley said during a recent "Inside the NBA" studio show. To go along with his defense, Adebayo has developed into one of the league's best playmaking bigs. He's one of only three centers averaging at least four assists to go along with 10 or more boards. The others are Karl Anthony-Towns and Nikola Jokic.
Tyler Herro, Rookie of the Year?
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New kid on the block, Tyler Herro has been a stellar roster addition in Miami this season. The tweener can shoot from distance and has some elite handles making him a very tough assignment for perimeter defenders.
"He has that [knack for big moments]," said Coach Spoelstra to the media after Herro knocked down big shots to help seal a victory over Utah. "You've seen that over and over here. He had that in college. These are qualities that you can't really define. You just know it when you see it. He steps up and has bigger moments when the game is on the line. Those plays that he was making, what's important about those plays, is that Goran and Jimmy were on the court at the same time. We were running our offense through him and they felt fully confident [in him] because he was attacking that coverage more efficiently than anybody else. That speaks a lot when you have those experienced all-star veterans wanting you to make the play."
Herro is averaging 14 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists, but his most significant impact has come in the waning moments of tight games. The teenager seems to have ice in veins as he's canned several considerable shots in the 4th quarter to help Miami edge out some much-needed victories. The scary part is, he's only getting better and more confident with each game. It is for this reason, many around the Heat organization feel the former Kentucky Wildcat is a star in the making.
Herro has shined along with his fellow rookie, Kendrick Nunn. The first-year diamond in the rough had a historic start to the season and has played a significant role in Miami's promising start. The youngster is averaging 16 points per game, second-most among all rookies.
Strength In Numbers
Goran Dragic leads Miami's potent list of reserves. With impressive play, he's emerged as a viable candidate for the 6th man of the year. Dragic is shooting a career-best 40.2% from beyond the arc while pouring in 15 points and 5 assists per game. Though only he ranks just outside the top 5th in individual scoring off the bench, Dragic may have the most profound impact on his team during the minutes he plays. He's often on the court to close out halves and at the end of close games. Head coach Erik Spoelstra isn't afraid to put the ball in his hands with the game on the line. With contributions from the likes of Derrick Jones Jr. and Kelly Olynyk, the Heat bench is tied for the 5th best scoring mark in the NBA.
Miami has all the trimmings of a viable team come playoff time. You can view them in the second tier of title contenders, right below Los Angeles and Milwaukee. With an experienced coach, savvy veteran star, and emerging supporting cast, they'll be worth keeping an eye on come May. Miami has beaten each of the Eastern Conference's top 4 seeds on the road and remain undefeated at home.