The team with the best record in the NBA, with the same roster they’ve had for most of the season, beat an opponent with ambitions of being a contender by seven, 115-108.
But the final score will not tell you the full story.
Bam Adebayo, as he’s been since early December, was on the sidelines with bandage on his finger that will keep him out, supposedly, at least one to two more weeks. Who knows, maybe even more.
So, the Heat played with only two of their three max players.
Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry were present. And when you’ve got those two established All-Stars, you have a puncher’s chance against anyone.
Only Butler went down to an apparent injury to his right ankle once again in the third quarter when his leg slipped after it planted on the ground awkwardly. The game was still in the balance.
He was lifted off the court, unable to walk on his own power. The Heat’s worst nightmares were coming to fruition. For a second, it seemed like the goalposts on this season’s ultimate hope shifted solemnly.
But it might be that Butler avoids a serious injury. It is an ankle issue – not a knee, and perhaps not an achilles – which is good news considering how frightening it initially looked.
“I’m fine,” Butler also apparently told Erik Spoelstra, his head coach, who’s done a phenomenal job steering this team to what’s now a 23-15 record following Monday’s defeat.
It might be weird to say this since Miami preceded its past two losses with five straight wins, but is there a cloud starting to form above this squad, one that inspires the sentiment of “what could be” will always be “what could have been?”
Or is that just the temporary frustrations chiming in?
Jimmy has a history of ankle issues. He also only recently returned from a tailbone injury which forced him, at one point, to miss half his team’s games this season.
Yet, they kept winning.
The game in San Francisco was on the second night of a back-to-back, following Miami’s close loss to Sacramento, where Butler missed on a potential game-tying floater which could have forced overtime.
Perhaps it’s time to rest Jimmy on back-to-backs the rest of the season? Put him on the Victor Oladipo program?
Only half-kidding there.
This is clear: Without Butler, the Heat are a promising, middle-of-the-pack team in the East.
With Jimmy, they are championship contenders. Maybe not the clear-cut favorite, but not an afterthought, either.
Which is why his availability takes precedence over whatever seeding or matchup preference Miami should have.
Butler is a historically good postseason performer. His bubble performance was not an outlier. He remains elite on both ends of the floor.
But his health? It’s nearly impossible to count on him to play close to 82 regular season games per season. He’s available when it matters, the playoffs, which is where this Miami team was constructed to thrive.
But how can it thrive when the pieces aren’t on the chessboard to begin with?
The Heat started Omer Yurtseven against Golden State. He was the sixth big man on Spo’s rotation before all the injuries and covid cases piled up. The Turkish standout has proven to be a double-double machine, although his average shooting near the rim and lateral challenges on defense have reared their ugly heads.
Markieff Morris remains out due to whiplash following the Nikola Jokic incident, although one can argue it’s beginning to get fishy why no further clarity on this issue has been presented.
Max Strus and Gabe Vincent, revelations this season, were out due to the safety protocols. So was Duncan Robinson, who was an easy target for Heat fans early in the season due to his inconsistent shooting early. Miami could have used him against the Warriors, eh?
Dewayne Dedmon’s knee injury has kept him sidelined. Udonis Haslem, of all people, is out due to the protocols. Oladipo has not yet played a single minute this season, after there was pre-season excitement he could have been back in December. Not a single update about his timetable has been given as of late.
And yet the admirable, headstrong, and determined Heat were right there in the fight late against the NBA’s best, throwing punches with one leg metaphorically bent, unwilling to give in despite the inevitable end.
Somehow, they keep finding these plug-and-play guys, don’t they?
Caleb Martin was a two-way signee off the waivers. He had 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting and 9 rebounds, which at this point is unsurprising numbers. Again, he’s a two-way guy.
Kyle Guy. Need we say more?
Steve Kerr, whose Warriors executed a terrific gameplan despite a rare off-night from Stephen Curry, explained it perfectly:
Steve Kerr after the game: "That was a testament to Heat culture. That was just straight Miami Heat basketball. They've been doing this for so long with Spo and Pat Riley over the last two decades. ... That was one the best performances I've seen from an undermanned team."— Anthony Chiang (@Anthony_Chiang) January 4, 2022
The Heat are almost the Duncan-era Spurs-light. They’re constantly in the mix. Since the days of LeBron James, they’ve been quiet on the drama-driven media narratives. They have a culture. They go to work. They win games.
And frankly, they could win the NBA title.
But they need to be healthy to do that.
Starting to sound familiar, isn’t it?
“They could have beaten the Lakers in the Finals in the bubble, but they weren’t healthy.”
“They could have avoided a first-round matchup against Milwaukee in the playoffs after suffering from a short offseason, but they weren’t healthy.”
Winning with Spo’s wonderful basketball mind, headstrong determination from an unwavering culture, and some talent is doable against opponents that won’t make the postseason or might just get in there.
But against the best of the best? You need to be at your best.
And again, the question needs to be asked:
At what point will we see the Heat’s best?
Will we ever?