Such is the privilege of finishing as the first seed in the Eastern Conference with homecourt clinched up to at least the Conference Finals. Any Game 7 leading up to the NBA Finals will be played at the FTX Arena in sunny South Florida, where the 53-29 Heat went a conference best 29-12 this season.
Erik Spoelstra and his staff rested Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, PJ Tucker, Tyler Herro, and the rest of Miami’s main core in Orlando, with the exception of Duncan Robinson and Victor Oladipo, who for only the second time since his return in March played more than 30 minutes in a contest. Bam Adebayo, who would have been rested anyway, is currently in health and safety protocols.
The Heat finished the regular season with at least 50 wins for the 10th time in 34 years. Each occasion Miami scored at least 50 wins under the tutelage of Spoelstra, they’ve made the NBA Finals. This season’s team also notched a winning percentage of .654%, which ranks 9th in franchise history. Under their current head coach, Miami has advanced to the NBA Finals each time they had at least a .600% winning mark in the regular season.
The goal of the current team is clear-as-day: to win an NBA title. That explains the roster make-up, a mix of promising young standouts, battle-tested veterans, reliable bench relievers, and champion leaders. If historical trends stand, they should make the final dance under the brightest spotlight in June.
In many ways, this is an unprecedented campaign.
The last time Miami topped the East without a top-5 NBA player in their roster was in the late 90s, when current team president Pat Riley was the head coach of competitive squads led by Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway, who unfortunately had heartbreaking run-ins against Michael Jordan’s legendary Chicago Bulls teams and arguably the franchise’s most bitter rival, the 90s New York Knicks.
(No, these Knickerbockers did not used to say, “Bing Bong.”)
If we’re being honest, this 2022 Miami Heat team doesn’t have a player who would widely be recognized as top-10 player in the NBA today. It gets even more absurd to realize they finished number one in the conference despite the plethora of missed games by Adebayo (26), Butler (25), Lowry (19), Herro (16), and Oladipo (74). Add the fact that this season’s Eastern contenders made the conference the most competitive it’s been in decades, and one can argue that what Miami accomplished is quite unapparelled.
So, what’s been the saving grace for a team that caught a bad taste of the injury bug, even in a season where players of all teams missed games due to COVID concerns? The depth. There’s a case that Miami’s player development system is the best in the NBA, at the very least right on top along with Toronto, Golden State, and Denver. Players whose contributions were considered unpredictable have established themselves as trustworthy plug-ins, with one of them even usurping the $90 million sharpshooter from the starting line-up.
Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, and Omer Yurtseven had minimal contributions in the Heat’s underperforming 2021 campaign, but showed promising signs of improvement in their respective offseason performances at the Olympics and Summer League. But to think they would seamlessly stand-in for starters who were out and lead Miami to winning records against tough competition would have been unimaginable back in September.
Miami is 17-10 with Vincent as a starter, 14-2 with Strus in it, and 8-4 when Yurtseven is slotted at center.
Miami doesn’t have a LeBron James, Kevin Durant, or Giannis Antetokounmpo, the kind of guys who can consistently put on a cap, say, “I got this,” and save the day. That type of individual brilliance is unique and franchises are fortunate enough to have its presence only once in a while. The Heat know this, which is a major reason why two championship banners from 2012-2013 hang above their arena.
But Miami has a collection of guys who work well together and each one of them can be the reason for a victory on any given night.
Butler is offensively limited because of his inconsistent outside shooting, but he remains one of the better scorers and elite defenders in the game with the ability to take his performance to the aforementioned levels of superstardom every now and then.
Adebayo, whose case for Defensive Player of the Year is as good as anyone else’s in the league, is the most versatile switch option in the NBA. As Bam himself likes to boast, he can guard anyone one through five; a walking mismatch on that end of the floor. His offense has also come along with an improved jumper and floater that he should take better advantage of.
Lowry has proven he can still score at a reliable level with his elevated play as of late and has justified the preseason notion that he is the ideal quarterback you’d like to have at the point guard position. Taking a team from “good” to “great” itself makes a player worth the max, and that’s exactly what QB7 does.
Hero is the runaway choice for 6th Man of the Year regardless of delusional proclamations by others. His ability to score in a variety of ways and improved decision-making as a playmaker all but assure he will be an NBA All-Star in the years to come.
Tucker, Strus, Vincent, Robinson, Dewayne Dedmon, and company all know their roles. When they enter the contest, regardless of when Spoelstra feels inclined to substitute them in, they know exactly what they have to do in order to help their team win. Having role players who are aware of how they can ensure the team’s success and proceed to accomplishing their tasks is such an underrated weapon to have in the postseason, especially when winning on the road is mandatory.
The Heat are 12th in offensive rating (113), 4th in defensive rating (108.4), 5th in effective field goal % (54.7), and 3rd in true shooting % (58.4). They also lead the league in 3-point % (37.9%) and bench points (40.5).
Is this the deepest team in the NBA? It’s up there, for sure. Whatever “strength in numbers” might mean to you, the principle can be applied to this Heat team, who at their best plays like a 10-man superstar.
We haven’t even mentioned Caleb Martin, who for some reason was waived by his former team, the Charlotte Hornets, and Miami picked up on a two-way contract. Flash to the present, and Martin has secured the back-up PF position with a role reserved for him in the playoffs, especially for defensive reasons. Oladipo, who dropped a 40-point performance on Sunday, and Markieff Morris, who was signed to be the back-up 4, haven’t seen the court often since returning from injuries thanks to Miami’s embarrassment of depth richness.
The best part? 60% of the Heat’s roster is made up of undrafted players who had to fight, claw, and scratch their way to earning NBA roster spots. There is no top-10 draft pick in the lineup outside of Oladipo, who has barely played this season. Even the head coach worked the video room for more than a decade before getting his current position.
In Miami, everything is earned, not given. That’s why you have the bench skirmishes, too. The competitive drive is palpable. Do they have a superstar to save the day at any given time? No. But they have something that can sometimes be worth more: the hunger to be great, and the reluctance to surrender.
That doesn’t mean a parade down beautiful Biscayne Boulevard is guaranteed. The Heat have their weaknesses (24th in offensive rating in “clutch” situations: 101.1) and the road will be hard.
Miami won’t know its first-round opponent until the end of the play-in. As of now, it can be anyone between Brooklyn, Cleveland, Atlanta, or Charlotte. If they advance to the second-round, one of Philadelphia or Toronto will be waiting for them, and each team has already presented its challenges for the Heat this season.
In the Conference Finals? It could be Boston or Milwaukee, two franchises whose confidence in winning a championship at the very least is on the same level as Miami’s. In the Finals? The Heat would likely be an underdog against a complete Phoenix Suns or Golden State Warriors team.
The road ahead is hard, but the Heat have built a culture based on the principles of competition. They will not run away from the challenge.
Before the season started off, Miami was considered a write-off by most of mainstream sports media. Some pundits had them settling in between the 4 to 6 seeds in the East. They were called “bubble frauds.” People mocked their title aspirations due to the lack of a “true superstar.”
On top of all of that, extra challenges were added to their plate. But what is it Riles once said about obstacles again?
“There are tons of them, but there’s none.”
In terms of surpassing expectations, this is the best Miami Heat regular season team of all time.
What comes next is the playoffs. If there’s anything to learn from this bunch, it’s this:
Count them out at your own peril.