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Heat’s 32nd season offered joy beyond expectations

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Miami entered the season hoping to get out of the first round — and ended it making a stand in the Finals.

2020 NBA Finals - Miami Heat v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Miami Heat’s 32nd season in franchise history ended with a blowout loss to the Los Angeles Lakers last night. It was undoubtedly a bitter end to an otherwise superb season. Bam Adebayo seemed to have borrowed Joel Anthony’s hands in the first half, fumbling passes and shots around the rim. Tyler Herro turned the ball over against the Lakers’ pressure. And Jimmy Butler, who had completed herculean efforts to will the Heat to victory in Games 3 and 5, looked spent.

But let’s not forget how great this season was. When the season first began and Miami looked better than many expected, fans compared this season to the 2003-04 one. Then, rookies Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem, second-year Caron Butler and veterans Lamar Odom, Eddie Jones and Brian Grant led Miami past the first round and pushed the top-seeded Indiana Pacers to six games in the second round.

This year’s team also featured two rookies, one first-round pick and one undrafted player — Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn. Adebayo rose from a backup big to Hassan Whiteside most of last season to a point-center, All-Star and All-NBA Defensive Team player. Duncan Robinson went from someone who couldn’t get minutes on a lottery team as an undrafted rookie to the fulcrum of a top-10 offense. And Butler and Goran Dragic provided the steady veteran leadership.

In the second game of the season, Miami defeated the Milwaukee Bucks. In December, the Heat come back from a six-point deficit with 59.9 seconds left to run away with the game in overtime. Miami raced out to a 29-12 record through the first 41 games. Aside from some bizarre behavior from Dion Waiters including a weed gummy incident on a team plane, the Heat were rolling.

But Miami had other issues. The Heat struggled on defense, and Erik Spoelstra used a zone defense more than any other team to cover it up. Pat Riley made a midseason deal looking to shore that up — trading the oft-injured Justise Winslow along with James Johnson and Waiters for Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill. But Miami still looked uneven, and they blew fourth-quarter leads to the Minnesota Timberwolves and Cleveland Cavaliers.

Of course, we still had some good moments, like Butler blowing T.J. Warren a kiss and Heat blowout wins over the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks.

And then, the league came to a halt with the COVID-19 virus spreading throughout the United States. Possibly more than any other team, the Heat took advantage of the hiatus. The team organized Zoom workouts. Tyler Herro “was in a gym all the time” and emerged in the bubble as a far better player than the one who made All-Rookie Second Team.

In the bubble, Spoelstra shifted Adebayo from a starting power forward alongside Meyers Leonard to a center with Jae Crowder as the four. The Heat shifted from a drop coverage to a switching defense.

And then, Miami swept the Indiana Pacers in the first round. In Game 1 of the Heat’s second-round series against the No. 1 overall seed Bucks, Butler dominated the fourth quarter and finished with 40 points on 13-of-20 shooting. In Game 3, the Heat blitzed the Bucks in the fourth quarter 40-13 to take a 3-0 lead.

Miami finished off Milwaukee in five games, heading to the conference finals for the first time since the Big Three era. And in overtime of Game 1, Adebayo blocked a Jayson Tatum dunk attempt that instantly became one of the best defensive players in playoff history. Herro dropped 37 points in Game 4, and Miami punched their ticket to the Finals after a dominant fourth quarter in Game 6.

The Heat were a fifth-seeded Cinderella team in the Finals. Dragic was playing the best basketball of his career. Butler changed the narrative with his playoff performances. Miami’s motion offense had writers comparing the Heat to the Golden State Warriors.

And then, Dragic and Adebayo both suffered injuries in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Everything suddenly rested on Butler’s shoulders. Some doubted whether he deserved the max contract Miami gave him in July 2019, but Butler put together two masterpieces in his first Finals appearance.

Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are the two best players in Heat history, but Butler and Alonzo Mourning exemplify Heat culture more than anyone else. And throughout the Finals, the Tomball, Texas native did it all for his team — scoring, setting his teammates up and defending LeBron.

In the end, it wasn’t enough to overcome LeBron and Anthony Davis. The Heat have some questions to answer over the next several months — who can join Adebayo as a two-way big, whether Nunn is a long-term answer in the backcourt. But every Heat fan should cherish this season. There hasn’t been anything like it.