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Culture beats Process as Miami inches closer to glory

This Heat era with Butler, Bam, and Herro have a shot to make the NBA Finals twice in the last three seasons.

NBA: Playoffs-Miami Heat at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Heat are off to their 9th Eastern Conference Finals appearance in franchise history after dismantling the Philadelphia 76ers in the second half of Game 6 in their semifinal series on Thursday.

In a battle that further strengthened the belief of culture > process, Miami used a dominant defensive effort to stifle a Philadelphia team that had no answers for the top-seed in the East despite the presence of MVP runner-up Joel Embiid, former MVP James Harden, and young stud Tyrese Maxey.

Miami suffocated the life out of both the isolation-heavy 76ers team and their early-departing fans by staying in front of their assignments, providing rugged help recovery after double and triple teams, and forcing timely turnovers leading to easy points which were key in the game-defining third quarter run.

Following elimination, it became evident Philadelphia is not in the same weight class as Miami, who looked like the better squad even after the 76ers had their complete line-up. While the Heat played unified basketball in the series closer, Philly was finger-pointing, looking at each other for answers, clueless on what to do, and deaf to their head coach’s requests during time-outs.

The Heat now have a net rating of +106 in the postseason despite playing most of it without injured starting point guard Kyle Lowry, who remains day-to-day with a hamstring issue. Gabe Vincent once again filled in for the max player and Miami improved to a perfect 6-0 with him in the opening unit.

The common theme for the Heat this season has been resiliency; particularly in bucking injuries to stay above East competition. The trend continues in the postseason, especially now as Heat fans wonder if Philadelphia would have been defeated in 4 or 5 games had Vincent continued playing over a hobbled Lowry in Games 3 and 4.

While Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and PJ Tucker all took turns providing what they do best to help Miami win, it was also another stellar performance by Max Strus, who finished with 20 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 assists. He was the spark the Heat needed to take care of business early. Max was on fire in the closely-fought first half and played his role suitably to keep Philadelphia at bay in the final two quarters.

Miami is now 22-5 when Strus starts. His play has elevated in the postseason. There’s been this belief that Strus is only a placeholder in the starting unit until the Heat find someone who’s better than him or Duncan Robinson – perhaps NBA 6th Man of the Year Tyler Herro or Victor Oladipo – yet Max is making a case to hold the spot long-term, especially considering how well the Tyler-Vic bench dynamic has worked.

This series was a Butler special, and how fitting because it was against the team that he last played for before joining Miami in 2019. The 76ers chose Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris over Butler because not all of them could share usage of the basketball with Embiid also on the floor, yet on Thursday, it was Jimmy sending Harris’ 76ers home while Simmons stayed at home, probably playing video games.

Meanwhile, his replacement, Harden, had another clunker to add to the list of classic disappointing Harden close-out performances: 11 points, 9 shot attempts, 9 assists, 4 turnovers, and a -16.

The dominating topic in national talk shows and podcasts will be about Embiid’s injuries, Harden’s disappointing play, and perhaps Rivers not coming back as head coach. But it should be about how the top-seed in the East continues to dominate the opposition in front of them, led by a stud in Butler who’s playing as well as anybody in the playoffs.

Jimmy averaged 27.5 PPG, 51.5% FG, 32.5% 3PT, 81% FT, 7.5 RPG, 5.5 APG, and 1.7 SPG in the 6-game series and provided a masterclass in winning basketball, because he was also dominant on the defensive end.

He took turns guarding Maxey, Harden, and Embiid while also recovering to outside shooters. He disrupted passing lanes, forced turnovers, and got easy scoring opportunities on the break against a bad transition team. He hit outside shots. He got to the charity stripe. He scored at the rim, in the paint, and from midrange. He was unstoppable.

His PER for the playoffs is at 31.7, leading all remaining players.

Inject a vile of truth serum in any logical Philadelphia fan and they will tell you they’d rather have Butler over Simmons, Harden, or Tobias Harris, who was silenced as this series progressed.

Adebayo was just as special. Stat sheet watchers will point to his low numbers, but anyone who knows winning basketball will indicate how dominant he was in other areas of the game. It was bad enough for Embiid to come back and play through everything he was suffering, but to also have to go up against Adebayo was like adding another ailment to his list of injuries.

Herro, Oladipo, and Tucker played their roles to perfection. They scored when needed to, played defense, and kept the offense humming to Erik Spoelstra’s choice of tune. Save for two games where Miami’s 3-point shooting uncharacteristically dropped, the Heat played exactly how you expect an elite squad to perform.

In his latest podcast, 3-time champion Draymond Green listed the qualities needed for a team to differentiate itself as a championship contender over just being a playoff team. Winning games you’re not supposed to win on the road was one of them. Green predicted this series would go back to Miami in 7. He was wrong. Butler and his boys are championship contenders.

Miami can and will be better if Lowry gets back to top health. If he doesn’t, well, as the team likes to say, “they have enough.” So far, they haven’t provided any reason not to believe them.

Glory awaits in the Eastern Conference Finals, and possibly a shot at vengeance. The last time Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks were in Miami, they said they didn’t want to play with their food, which was why they embarrassingly swept the Heat out of their own arena.

This time, Miami will be more prepared.

This era with Butler, Bam, and Herro have a shot to make the Finals twice in the last three seasons. That accomplishment would be in line with the kind of resume that Heat players who eventually get their jerseys retired have. Butler is playing at a level likewise to legends LeBron James and Dwyane Wade from their heyday in Miami uniforms.

Miami is close to knocking on history’s door. They have enough to knock it right down.