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The Heat’s Fire Turned Back To Embers

Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat looks on during the game during Game Five of the 2023 NBA Finals on June 12, 2023 at the Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado.
Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

A bit under three years ago, the Miami Heat lost the NBA Finals to a bigger, healthier, better team after making a run from the bottom half of the Eastern Conference bracket. (Sound familiar?) At the time, I wrote that the Heat, and by extension Heat fans like myself, should have been thrilled after making it that far, only to fall short under the weight of rebounds and injuries. I also cautioned that there were no guarantees that the Heat's core would ever reach these heights again. No fire burns forever, after all.

That the Heat proved me wrong and made the 2023 NBA Finals is magnitudes more shocking than what they did in the bubble. After all, the bubble was almost tailor-made for a maniacal group of players, at an organization that rewards and encourages maniacal effort at all times, to succeed. This time around, though, things were more ordinary, whatever that might mean, which meant that the eight-seeded Heat had to be extraordinary to even get a chance to get demolished by the Denver Nuggets. Miami taking out the one-seed Milwaukee Bucks, the five-seed New York Knicks, and the two-seed Boston Celtics en route to a comprehensive series beatdown by the top team in the Western Conference should be celebrated, not regretted.

And yet! It still sucks! The nature of the NBA is such that no one is promised a second chance. In this Heat team's case, there's no promise of a third one, either. I can delude myself into believing that a few bad breaks going another way could have changed this outcome. What if Tyler Herro doesn't dive for that ball in Game 1 against Milwaukee, breaking his hand in the process? What if Victor Oladipo, cursed but delightful player that he is, doesn't tear a tendon in his knee in Game 3 of that same series? What if Josh Hart doesn't flop in an unfortunately dangerous way, taking out Jimmy Butler's ankle in Game 2 of the second round? Could all of that have produced enough firepower for Miami to overcome Nikola Jokic in all of his Nikola Jokicesque glory, and Jamal Murray, and Aaron Gordon, and even a rookie like Christian Braun?

Maybe, but probably not. Denver was the best team this season, across both conferences, while Miami finished seventh in the East, lost one play-in game, barely won another, and entered the "real" playoffs at the bottom of the bracket. The magic always runs out, and the hope as a fan, and I'm sure as a team, is that there is enough to make it all the way. The Heat became the first eight-seed in a full season to make a run to the Finals, and only the second ever after the lockout-season Knicks in 1999. That's great! They avenged last year's Game 7 loss on home court to the Celtics by absolutely whooping them in front of Bill Simmons and the ghosts of Boston title teams past. Lovely!

But reality smacked them in the face over and over in the Finals. Miami couldn't out-rebound a Denver team that was mountainous (ha!) in comparison. They couldn't switch the Murray-Jokic two-man game without putting a very small man on Jokic, who then went to work scoring his own baskets and handing out assists from the free-throw line area. They couldn't stop Gordon, and Braun, and Michael Porter Jr. from cutting to the basket and feasting with layup after layup after dunk.

On the other end, the historic shooting that got the Heat to the Finals mostly dried up. They didn't regress to the mean so much as the mean took them outside and beat them down: Aside from Game 2's 48.6 percent explosion from three, the Heat never once shot their season average of 34.4 percent. Things got ugly when Max Strus and Gabe Vincent stopped shooting like the Splash Brothers, and Miami didn't have enough to overcome it. No team could, in their situation.

The solution could have come from Butler, but he was clearly not himself, and hasn't been outside of some flashes since the ankle injury. The solution did almost come from Bam Adebayo, who did his best work in a Heat jersey during this series, even at a height and strength disadvantage against Jokic (there should be no lingering questions about whether Miami can win with Adebayo). Herro suited up for Game 5 but didn't play; a broken hand is not the injury to try to play through in the NBA Finals.

And then there is Erik Spoelstra. No one, and especially not me, will or should question whether Spoelstra is the right coach for Miami. But he was out-coached by Mike Malone here, partly out of a lack of potential answers and partly out of a stubbornness that has never really showed up before in his Heat tenure. Spoelstra's best talent has always been his ability to adapt to whatever group of previously unknown scrubs he has at his disposal, and to move on to a new strategy when an old one wasn't working. Here, though, he stuck to Strus and Vincent and even ECF hero Caleb Martin when it was clear they didn't have "it" on a particular night, rather than giving Duncan Robinson and Haywood Highsmith and Kevin Love more run. That those were his options is part of the problem, but let's move on.

Spoelstra also kept playing Cody Zeller in this series, and seeing Miami subsequently lose those minutes every single time was as frustrated as I have been as a Heat fan since LeBron James was getting worked by JJ Barea and Jason Terry in 2011. This is spoiled thinking, but for a coach that always has answers that no one else had seen coming, Spoelstra just ran out of them in the Finals. It happens, and it does nothing to hamper his impeccable tenure—his 2-4 Finals record looks less damning when realizing that the Heat were only favored in one of the losses, that 2011 debacle—but it is worth noting.

So where does Miami go from here? Despite the three-year gap between this run to the Finals and the one that came in the bubble, the Heat are in a similar situation this time around. They were close to a title, but not so close as to feel like they could run it back. Running it back from last season's ECF exit is part of why Miami couldn't do it in the Finals this time around; Strus and Vincent and Martin and Robinson are all great stories, and had their necessary moments, but Miami needs more to win those last few games.

Is that "more" Damian Lillard, who has listed Miami as a potential landing spot if he were to leave Portland? Either way, that's the type of move that the Heat should aggressively pursue this off-season. Butler will turn 34 before next season. Adebayo is in his prime as a defender and could only get better on offense. They need help, and not just in the form of Herro returning. They need another dynamite scorer, one more tool in Spoelstra's kit to beat more complete teams. This is the time to go for it, to turn the underdog story of the little eight-seed that could into a real title contender.

Miami has been successful as hell with so little dating back to the start of the pandemic: Three Eastern Conference Finals, and two Finals appearances (the only team in that span to go to the big show twice). Only a post-bubble season sweep at the hand of the Bucks in 2021 serves as a blemish on as successful a four-year run as any team has had in NBA history without winning a title. Is it over? It could be, as all things in the NBA have limited lifespans. After what I saw these playoffs, from a team that I thought would limp out in five games in the first round against the first title contender it faced, I wouldn't bet against the Heat making a move or two that gets them back here again. That's the thing about a fire: It just needs a little oxygen to roar back to life.

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