Miami—Had Jimmy Butler’s late three-point effort in game seven of last year’s Eastern Conference championship game not bounced off the rim, the Miami Heat would have reached their second NBA Finals in three years.
And while few predicted the Heat would go deep in the playoffs last season, it’s perhaps a little surprising that the same view prevails again heading into this campaign.
The Heat, say the pundits, just don’t have enough firepower to prevail in a conference where the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks are the favorites to finish as top seeds.
Opinion is cool on the Heat, largely because the club failed to make any big moves during the off-season and return with an almost identical roster to last season.
But the Heat seem to enjoy being overlooked, using what they view as disrespect as fuel for their fire.
“They don’t talk about us out there in the media and all that,” center Bam Adebayo said in a recent interview with Sirius XM radio. “But when it comes down it, a lot of people don’t like playing us. They don’t. They don’t like playing us.”
Adebayo suspects the absence of big-name stars, with the exception of six-time All-Star Butler, leads many to undervalue the team but knows opponents are well aware of what they are facing on court.
“I don’t know if it’s, you know, the scrappiness. But yeah, we play great, ugly basketball,” he said.
“We going to scrap you to death.”
In Erik Spoelstra, the Heat have one of the most successful coaches in the league and team president Pat Riley is one of the most widely respected figures in his role.
But the figure who perhaps best epitomizes the determined, aggressive style played by the Heat has no grand job title and barely features on the court.
Miami-born Udonis Haslem remains on the roster despite having reached the age of 42, largely because of his importance to the locker-room culture.
More than just representing continuity with the Heat of Shaqille O’Neal, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, Haslem is in many ways an enforcer of the Heat’s standards as his infamous courtside verbal confrontation with Butler last season highlighted so explicitly.
Haslem’s 20th NBA season is likely to be his final one and he sees Adebayo as the man to continue his legacy as the “gatekeeper” of the Heat approach and is determined to push Butler towards the championship ring that has eluded him so far.
“I want to pass the torch to Bam as the next bearer of the culture,” he told ESPN recently.
“I want to continue to mold and help Jimmy be the champion that he deserves to be. And I just want to leave this locker room headed in the right direction.”
The new arrival who will have to quickly get on board with those standards is 19-year-old Serbian Nikola Jovic, a 6-foot-10 small forward who was drafted 27th overall and who has made a good early impression.
Yurtseven will step up
But while the names remain the same, Spoelstra believes there will be different features to his team this season.
There are high hopes for guard Tyler Herro, who had eight 30-point games off the bench last season and who has been tied to a new long-term deal. There’s also a belief that Kyle Lowry can truly deliver after a mixed effort last season following his trade from Toronto.
Spoelstra also has a great record of turning undrafted players into key components of his teams and with P.J. Tucker having left for Philadelphia, there could be an opportunity for Turkish center Omer Yurtseven.
Yurtseven, who showed promise during his introduction to the team last season, believes the team has what it takes to go beyond last season’s achievement.
“I think we fell short last year because there were moments when the team needed another guy or two to step up in every area — sometimes offense, sometimes defense,” he said. “And that’s what I think we’ll do this year.”