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This Miami Heat team is starting to find their spirit

Can the Heat finally get in a groove this season?

Phoenix Suns v Miami Heat Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

There was such a magical vibe to last season’s Miami Heat team, the kind that would endear to any fan base. Perhaps it was the us-against-the-world mentality they played with while everyone else dismissed them as a non-threat. But those who followed what that group accomplished knew they had the audacity to believe in their potential because they put in the hard-nosed effort day in and day out to materialize their ambitions into reality.

For most of this new NBA season, the Heat and those who follow the team have sought that same uplifting feeling from last campaign’s run, and at first it was as tough as finding a genie in a bottle. Head coach Erik Spoelstra described it well by using the word “identity” repeatedly in finding a balance of what this team is now supposed to be while also winning basketball games.

It took 14 games and nearly one month into the season, but the Heat are finally at .500.

Miami hosted and defeated the Phoenix Suns at home, using a tremendous fourth quarter comeback to erase what was a 13-point deficit with 8 minutes to go and turn it into a one-point win. They did what contenders are supposed to do, whether or not you believe they still are one of them.

Phoenix had no Chris Paul and Cam Johnson, but the Heat were without Tyler Herro, Victor Oladipo, and Omer Yurtseven. It came down to the stars of each respective squad making plays down the stretch to determine a winner in what was a contest of high-quality basketball. Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler got the job done. Devin Booker nearly did for his Suns, but came up just one basket short.

What is it they say again? Defense wins championships.

It was unequivocally the most spirited Miami win of the season, given the quality of opponent they faced and manner by which they won in front of a home crowd which was as boisterous as they’ve been since season tip-off. Phoenix, one of the top teams in the NBA on both sides of the floor, played superb hoops despite the absence of their future hall-of-fame floor general, sparked by inspired performances from Booker, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton, and Monday’s #RSHK, Duane Washington Jr, who unfortunately was feeling into his post-shot celebrations a little too much.

“They arguably make as many tough shots as any team in this league, but that’s what they do,” Spoelstra said of the Suns afterwards.

“We’re starting slowly to develop the necessary grit and perseverance that’s required in this league,” he added.

It was the sixth time in the last seven games that Miami went down the wire against an opponent. They won four of those: Golden State, Sacramento, Charlotte, and now, Phoenix. You can argue the two losses – at Indiana and against Portland – should have been wins. But the Heat have now won 5 of their last 7, going 5-1 in this recent homestand before heading out for what should be a challenging 4-game road trip against Toronto, Washington, Cleveland, and Minnesota.

When they raced off to the top of the East last season, one of the criticisms about Miami was how they failed to execute consistently in late-game situations, particularly in half-court. Their record so far this season doesn’t match the same pace, but they’re finding themselves involved in more playoff-like situations early and thriving in them. One can argue that quality of experienced gained from said competitive environments might come in more handy in the future compared to consecutive wins via blowouts, especially when you close out an opponent on the defensive end.

“I think it’s the fastest way for your team to get connected and really understand what wins and also what will help you lose a game,” Spoelstra described it.

But wins are still important, and Miami needed this one – for their record, but more importantly, to uplift a squad that has a roster with little margin for error.

This much is true, though: if Bam Adebayo continues to produce the way he did in the fourth quarter of Monday’s game – which is already a bonus to all the other substantial contributions he makes on a basketball court – then the Heat can not only match the level of threat they were last season, but perhaps even enhance it.

Adebayo’s leap is happening. It might not be that obvious to the naked eye but the fact that he’s willingly taking on the responsibility of being more of a scoring threat while also continuing to carry the many tasks he handles on both ends of the floor speaks to the deep skillset the former Kentucky big possesses, and why he continues to rise up in the conversation of best big men in the NBA.

“Absolute winner,” is what Spoelstra described him.

Adebayo is the next great homegrown Miami Heat franchise player.

“He can morph into so many different roles for us where he makes it look so much easier to the average fan. Everybody just wants him to score 40. That’s not necessarily the whole deal, but him understanding how to read defenses and what’s necessary for this team, when to be assertive, when to set screens for guys.”

And as Jimmy Butler added: “Bam is back there being the anchor of the defense. It’s a tough job to do, but he does it well.”

Adebayo finished the game with 30 points (13 in the fourth) and 10 rebounds, shooting 9-of-18 from the field and 12-of-14 from the foul stripe. For the season he’s now making 85.5% of his freebies, turning what was an average-level strength from seasons past to above average. That manifested strongly in the final minute, where Bam knocked in the game-winning free throws for Miami after confidently attacking the rim. His body language alone when it’s his turn to play hero looks way better.

Ironically, Butler and Adebayo switched roles down the stretch, with Bam as the sparkplug on offense and Jimmy shutting down the opposition on the other end. Booker is a great player, but as talented as he is as an offensive weapon, Butler is just as prominent, if not better, as a defensive juggernaut. He forced Booker right, knowing the NBA 2K cover star would rise up, and finally timed his block perfectly.

Booker had one last crack at a win, but with time running down, he couldn’t square up effectively in time to hit a game-winner.

“Jimmy’s not ever shying away from guarding the other team’s best player and that’s the definition of a true two-way competitor,” Spoelstra said, later adding:

“A lot of guys will want to wait until the 4th quarter to have to guard the other team’s best player. He did from the opening tip all the way until the end.”

Caleb Martin and Kyle Lowry were superb on a night where Max Strus was misfiring. Even Dewayne Dedmon and Gabe Vincent had their moments. When Herro returns (and maybe Oladipo/Yurtseven), this team will only get better. Ultimately, however, Miami will go as far as Jimmy and Bam can take them. They are this team’s dynamic duo, the type that is good enough to win a title.

“Those two guys are the foundational heartbeat and pieces to our team. We follow their warrior spirits. They’re just so tough They’re the epitome of being two-way basketball players,” Spoelstra said.

On the final play, Butler, true to form, had this to say: “We got guys who can score some buckets, but I love the fact that we won this game on the defensive end.”

Sounds a lot like Miami Heat basketball.

And by the look of recent events, it’s starting to feel like they’re building an identity. It might not play out as having the same magic of last season’s, but just because it’s different, that doesn’t mean it won’t be awesome.