We are now in the second
half portion of the 2021-22 NBA season. The Miami Heat sit at 38-21 with 23 games to go and currently are a half-game behind the now-39-21 Chicago Bulls for the top-seed in the Eastern Conference.
Our Hot Hot Hoops writers did a round table over the break to give their thoughts on the first 59 games as well as an outlook for the near future. Enjoy!
How are you feeling about the Heat with 23 games left?? Has this season surpassed (or not surpassed) your expectations thus far?
Naveen: The Heat are NBA title contenders. They might not be the premier choice, but they have as good a chance as any option. They have all the components to make an elite team: versatility on both ends of the floor, lockdown defenders, unselfishness on offense, shooting, rebounding, hustle, experience, you name it. For all of Jimmy Butler’s struggles, he’s still a superstar with the ability to close games out, too.
Given how well Miami has played despite all the injuries they’ve had to deal with, and especially considering how competitive the Eastern Conference is, for them to be at the one seed at this point is remarkable. So, yes, they have certainly surpassed my expectations.
Matt P: I’m feeling great. Miami has played above expectations and they have gotten contributions from Gabe Vincent, Max Strus and Omer Yurtseven that also point to promise and flexibility in the future. When healthy, this team has what it takes to come out of the East and that’s all you can ask for.
Surya: Considering the Heat have barely scratched the surface on what their projected 5 can accomplish together and how it’s been a revolving door of inactive players all season long, it’s a minor miracle they’re atop the East standings at the All-Star break. Spoelstra deserves Coach of the Year honors while Herro has to be given serious consideration for Rookie of the Year. I knew they would be good, I didn’t think they would be able to pull this off in a crowded conference.
Brandon: I’m feeling excited about this team headed into the final stretch. It’s crazy to me how well they’ve performed given extended absences and injuries. So I think it’s safe to say they’ve exceeded my expectations. From Herro’s bounce back season, to Lowry’s effortless ability to run the offense, these guys are the real deal. With Oladipo returning, Miami is adding another elite player into an already excellent rotation. I hope they spend the final 23 games figuring out the proper rotation for a very deep playoff run.
Diego: This season has exceeded my expectations. Going into the season, I didn’t expect Miami to hold the top seed in the conference at the All-Star break. That’s not even accounting for the significant time Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo would miss. The Heat’s depth – which was a big question mark – came through. Tyler Herro is a runaway Sixth Man of the Year. P.J. Tucker has been an all-time great role player for Miami. Caleb Martin has filled in for Markieff Morris’ role, and Gabe Vincent and Max Strus have proven to replicate some of what Kyle Lowry and Duncan Robinson do at their best.
Matt Hanifan: If you told me before the season that Miami would sit atop the East at the All-Star break while listing all the injury and COVID chaos that swirled within the team, I’d laugh. Well, here we are — me laughing, despite the razor-thin margin between Miami and the field. Nevertheless, with the squad getting back healthy (knock on wood) — it’s hard not to be impressed with how the first 59-game chunk went.
What are you excited about, regarding the Heat, for the rest of the season?
Naveen: How much further the Victor Oladipo addition can increase their ceiling. The addition of the former all-star - coming off major surgery - unlocks a potentially devastating 5-man defensive closing line-up for Miami. There might be spacing issues on the other end, but given Erik Spoelstra’s inclination to switch on D, Vic would seamlessly fit in with Butler, Kyle Lowry, Bam Adebayo, and PJ Tucker – a unit that would give opposing head coaches nightmares.
Matt P: I’m excited for the Playoffs. This team is constructed to win playoff series. For as good as PJ Tucker has been, he was brought here for the Playoffs. The defensive versatility of Bam Adebayo is a nightmare for other teams in a series and Kyle Lowry brings championship experience as well. This has been a fun regular season team, but there could be another level we haven’t seen.
Surya: Seeing the team as healthy as possible down the stretch and heading into the postseason. With the imminent return of Victor Oladipo, it’ll be fun to see how it all comes together.
Brandon: I’m excited for consistency, this team hasn’t had all its parts in a very long time and it finally has a chance to be whole. I want to see what this team looks like at full strength, and I want it to scare the rest of the league.
Diego: This team has always been a joy to watch – it’s a nice respite from last year’s dreary season. I’m excited to see the offense hum again with Adebayo showing aggression and the defense clamp down on opposing teams. I’m also looking forward to Victor Oladipo’s return. A buyout guy might be nice to have for a few minutes here and there, but Dipo’s the one guy who can raise the ceiling of this team.
Matt H.: I’ve been antsy about Oladipo’s return since the beginning of the season. I still am. The thought of their five-man death (defensive) lineup between Lowry-Oladipo-Butler-Tucker-Adebayo makes me giddy and I’m very intrigued to see how Oladipo fits in with the rest of the roster. We got the smallest of small glimpses of his fit in 2020-21, and a healthy and engaged Victor Oladipo has the potential to be much better than last year’s version.
What’s your biggest concern?
Naveen: Late-game, half-court execution. Any lineup with Jimmy and Bam will have spacing issues. Lowry, Tucker, and one of Herro, Robinson, or Oladipo will need to be ready to knock down shots or make plays when the ball gets to their hands. A little more imagination, given Spo’s offensive mastermind, and not the usual iso-heavy crunch-time go-to plays could be a positive change as well.
Matt P: Herro and Robinson being iso’d when it matters most. The Playoffs show us something different in one on one matchups. And as hard as Miami can make it on teams for 24 seconds, the opponent is always just a screen and switch away from getting a tasty matchup. I love that the Heat switch because it doesn’t allow teams to do what they want offensively – however, it creates problems when you don’t have 5 players who can guard 1 on 1.
Surya: That the rotation as conceived by the front office and the coaching staff never truly gets a good run together, either due to injury or protocols.
Brandon: Injuries. Like it or not the Heat are injury prone, it cost them in the 2020 Finals and it remains my biggest fear for this team. Teams like this don’t come around every season, and I’d prefer if the offseason didn’t consist of “What-If” scenarios.
Diego: My biggest concern is the length of certain teams – like the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics – that have posed problems for Miami earlier this season. Hopefully Oladipo’s return helps, because sometimes a backcourt of Vincent and Lowry is awfully small. Given how tight the East standings are, Miami could find themselves in a battle in the first round.
Matt H.: Health and halfcourt execution offensively, specifically late in the game. This team can go far if, and only if, they remain healthy. While their depth has emerged as a strength throughout the season, I truly believe this team needs each of their top four — Butler, Adebayo, Lowry and Herro — to be fully healthy for any chance of a prolonged playoff run. The Heat have also been an average halfcourt offensive team this season; per Cleaning The Glass, they rank 13th in points per 100 plays in the halfcourt (95.6). Offense traditionally bogs down in the playoffs, especially the further you advance. The spacing with Adebayo, Butler and Tucker will always be somewhat murky, so Miami — namely Butler, Lowry and Adebayo — needs to continually hunt and taking advantage of mismatches within the flow of the offense to maximize their halfcourt possessions down the stretch.
What needs to happen, in your opinion, for them to make another NBA Finals?
Naveen: Health and long-range shooting. If the Heat are healthy and the floor-spreaders do their job, the pathway to the finals will be right there.
Matt P: Jimmy Butler has to be playing at an elite level leading this team.
Surya: I’d like to see Bam step up and become more dominant in fourth quarters and in crunch time. Duncan needs to be more consistent, Lowry a little more selfish, and Butler to play at the elite level in the postseason as he did in the Bubble. Against teams with superstars in a seven-game series, Miami’s starting five will all have to be on top of their game.
Brandon: I think it’s a mix of what’s already written above me, but I’d add that some Herro explosions similar to what he pulled off in the 2020 ECF would really help the Heat. Miami’s a low scoring team, so anytime a player scores in bunches it really helps them.
Diego: In the playoffs, teams need to deliver in the clutch. That’s how the Heat made it to the Finals in 2020 – with great fourth-quarter play. The Heat need to stay healthy and execute well on both ends of the floor in tight games. Miami has struggled in this regard during the season, but past iterations of the Heat have also turned around late-game struggles in the playoffs.
Matt H.: A lot will have to break their way — but among the things they can control: Bam Adebayo needs to remain aggressive; they need to be less stagnated in late-game situations; they need to remain physical and flexible defensively; and Herro, Butler and Lowry will *also* have to be on the top of their game whenever they’re on the court. If most or all of those become true, a path of the Finals opens up. But it’s going to be much easier said than done.
Where do you predict Miami finishes in the standings?
Naveen: First in the East.
Matt P: Second in the East. I think there will be a learning curve when Oladipo returns and it will cost them a few games. The race is so tight right now, they are a rough patch away from the 5th seed.
Surya: They have as good a chance as any of the other top teams in the East to finish the season first, but more likely they finish second or third. It’s too close to call, and tiebreakers could even make a difference.
Brandon: It’s a tight race, but I could see Miami falling to third or fourth at worst if there is some turbulence. If things go well I think they stay in first.
Diego: Because the Heat will play at home for most of the stretch run of the regular season, I say Miami stays in first place.
Matt H.: I don’t think I have anywhere enough evidence to make a firm conclusion, but I’ll say they finish within the top-3 of the East. Given how tight the race is, it’s an optimistic, yet realistic point-of-view because this team plays 15 of their final 23 at home with a semi-easy remaining strength-of-schedule. But a couple slip-ups here-and-there could lead to them fighting for home court. Their variance for seeding is quite high, but I’ll still say they finish in the top-3.
Is there any team you’re keeping an eye out throughout the Eastern Conference for the rest of the season?
Naveen: Nearly every Eastern Conference team in the playoff chase is worth monitoring given how it feels like any squad could beat another on any given night. But if I had to pick one, it would be Milwaukee. Is Brook Lopez going to come back? If he isn’t, the Bucks aren’t as strong as last season. Another important note: Milwaukee has played deep into the playoffs three straight seasons, including a taxing run to the NBA title last season. Will they run out of gas, or is Giannis too dominant? We’ll see.
Matt P: It has to be Brooklyn for me. Kevin Durant is who he is, and nearly beat the Bucks by himself last year. If he’s healthy and Ben Simmons returns…the Nets have enough fire power to scare anyone. And now they have the Dragon…
Surya: Brooklyn and Philadelphia will be fascinating to watch how their seasons will play out after the huge trade, but I don’t consider either of them at this point a serious threat this season. Next season might be a different story.
Brandon: Obviously Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Philadelphia are huge threats. But depending on where they finish I could see Toronto causing chaos in the playoffs. They’re extremely well coached and have a great mix of veterans and young talent that should scare a higher seed in a seven game series.
Diego: I’m looking at Brooklyn. An 11-game losing streak sent them tumbling in the standings. They’re now in the eighth seed – the team that would face the Miami Heat in the first round if the playoffs started today. Although I’m worried about the length of Boston and Toronto, the Nets have the starpower with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and a motivated Ben Simmons.
Matt H.: The consensus here seems to be Brooklyn, and for good reason, but I’m going to pivot and say the Boston Celtics. Since the New Year, they’re first in defense by a wide margin, they’ve surrendered a laughably-low 100.9 points per 100 possessions. The next best? The Dallas Mavericks (who also deserve a ton of credit for what they’ve done at that end, too) at 105.0 points — a margin north of four points, a bigger gap between Dallas and the 8th-best mark (Memphis Grizzlies — 108.8). There’s some luck to it and I foresee it regressing towards the end of the season, but Boston is an excellent defense team regardless. Even at the expense of several players-only meetings that fans (myself included) poked fun at, Boston — led by a formidable defensive quartet in perennial All-Defensive candidate Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams, among others — have truly bought in to Ime Udoka’s switch-heavy scheme. Add in Derrick White, another really good multi-positional defender? Sheesh. That doesn’t even factor in Grant Williams or Al Horford, two above average defenders in their own respects. With their peskiness, sheer connectivity and willingness to scram out of disadvantageous situations — hunting for mismatches on the defensive end will be nearly impossible. They’ve also been a top-10 offense (9th - 114.0 ORTG) since Jan. 1, too, and I like the strides from Smart and Tatum as playmakers. I’m very interested to see how the rest of the season pans out for Boston because I believe they’re an under-the-radar candidate to come out of the East.