Sports

Why Not the Heat?

The first two games have showcased why Miami should be considered a dangerous championship contender.

Kyle Lowry and Jimmy Butler looking at each other, with an X's and O's basketball play illustrated around them
Kyle Lowry and Jimmy Butler. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Michael Reaves/Getty Images and Getty Images Plus.

Greetings from Slate’s health and safety protocols! On Tuesday, I tested positive for COVID-19, meaning I’m stuck at home for the foreseeable future. I’m feeling a little under the weather, but nothing so bad that I can’t watch and write about the NBA playoffs; I can only hope you’ll consider this week my personal flu game.

As of Wednesday afternoon, we’re now two games into most of the first-round series, which means some clear takeaways have started to emerge—while others definitely haven’t. To start with the latter: The seventh-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves stunned the Memphis Grizzlies at home on Saturday behind 36 points from second-year dynamo Anthony Edwards, prompting questions about whether the Wolves had the Grizz’s number and if Ant was evolving into a generational superstar before our eyes. Then Tuesday night, Memphis came out and walloped Minnesota by 28, knotting the series at 1–1. The 1–8 Western Conference matchup of Phoenix vs. New Orleans was assumed by pretty much everyone to be a walkover for the Suns, until last night when the Pels beat them handily in Phoenix. The Suns will still probably take the series, but it was a sobering reminder that this time of year, nothing is given, especially now that news has just broken that Phoenix’s All-Star shooting guard Devin Booker might miss the next two games with a hamstring strain.

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On the other hand, the Philadelphia 76ers—the fashionable 2022 Haters’ Pick to get upset in the first round—have been pretty dominant, winning their first two games against the Toronto Raptors by a cumulative 35 points and uncharacteristically looking like a better team in the postseason than they did in the regular season. The Golden State Warriors have likewise coasted to back-to-back double-digit wins against the Denver Nuggets, thus far confirming suspicions that, despite the best efforts of possible repeat MVP Nikola Jokic, Denver simply doesn’t have the healthy talent to be a playoff factor this year.

And then there’s the Boston Celtics–Brooklyn Nets series, many people’s pick to be the most competitive of the first round; so far it’s only exceeded those expectations. Sunday’s Game 1 might have been greatest first-round opener I’ve ever watched, a delirious affair featuring an earth-shattering performance by Kyrie Irving that finally culminated in a buzzer-beating layup by Jayson Tatum to win the game for Boston. Fifty years from now, the Celtics’ execution in the game’s final 30 seconds will be taught in college classes on how to steal wins in the closing possessions of playoff games. (I hope to be teaching this class.)

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I could easily write thousands more words right now on the Celtics-Nets series, but as of this writing they’ve only played one game, and if I don’t impose some discipline on myself early on, Slate will quickly turn into America’s leading pro–Grant Williams propaganda organ. Instead I want to focus on a team that I frankly don’t love watching but, through two games, has shown that it is well-deserving of a spotlight of its own: the Miami Heat.

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The Heat were the top seed in the Eastern Conference this year, but in the run-up to the playoffs were strangely underdiscussed as a real championship contender. Over the past month or so, it was much more common to hear cases made for the Suns or Warriors or Bucks or Celtics as title picks than the Heat. Maybe this was due to some widely publicized internal flare-ups; maybe it was that the Heat lack an incandescent superstar along the lines of a Giannis or Steph; maybe it’s just because a lot of NBA fans find the Heat’s whole deal to be quite annoying. (More on that in a bit.)

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Whatever it was, it now seems weird, considering this is a team that went to the Finals just two years ago and almost certainly has a more talented roster now than it did then. Heading into the Heat-Hawks 1–8 matchup, there was a trendy belief in some quarters that Atlanta, a surprise conference finalist last year, might be able to give Miami a scare. Much of this had to do with the burgeoning legend of Atlanta guard Trae Young, a high-scoring, undersized point guard who’s become a folk hero among people with a fetish for logo 3s and defensive ineptitude. Young has a certain mystique about him that can sometimes convince you that things are possible when, well, they probably aren’t.

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And so far they definitely aren’t. In Game 1, Miami destroyed Atlanta, going up 19 at the half and ultimately winning by 24. Miami’s defense forced Young into a 1–12 shooting night; he finished with 8 points, six turnovers, and missed all seven of his 3-point attempts. Game 2 was closer but not exactly a nail-biter: Atlanta got within 3 a few times in the fourth quarter, but the Heat ended up winning by 10, with Young shooting 2–10 from 3 and committing 10 turnovers. The series moves to Atlanta on Friday; it’s entirely possible the Hawks steal one or two from Miami at home, but it also seems equally possible that Miami just methodically snuffs them out in four.

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The Heat are an unusually irritating organization, which I mostly say admiringly. “Heat Culture” is the NBA’s equivalent of “the Patriot Way” or “Yankee Pride,” a branding coup that implies success in pro sports is imbued with some vague moral component. When LeBron James and Chris Bosh famously decamped to South Beach in 2010, the Heat immediately became the most widely loathed team in sports; by 2012 or so, this had mostly subsided, but among most NBA fans the Heatles championship squads of 2012 and 2013 were more grudgingly respected than they were beloved. Then there’s the whole Miami-ness of it all; Ray Allen’s game-winning 3-pointer in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, probably the greatest shot in NBA history, will forever be linked to memories of Heat fans scrambling to get back into American Airlines Arena after leaving a do-or-die Finals game early in order to beat traffic.

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The 2022 version of the Heat features Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry, two of the most irascible and aggravating players in recent history. Butler and Lowry, future Hall of Famers both, are maestros of chirping and instigating and have carved hugely successful careers out of winning ugly. The Heat are Butler and Lowry’s fourth franchise each, an unusually high number for players of their caliber. In Lowry’s case this is understandable, as he was a late bloomer who didn’t develop into an All-Star until his third stop, with Toronto. In Butler’s case, Jimmy Buckets rose to stardom with the Bulls, who traded him to Minnesota as part of a tear-down in 2017. He then torched his way out of Minnesota after a little more than a year and forced a trade to Philly, who promptly cut ties with him after a single season, reportedly in part due to interpersonal turbulence with the Sixers’ (then) franchise cornerstone Ben Simmons.

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Butler dropped 45 points on the Hawks Tuesday night, a scary performance considering the Heat’s main weakness was supposed to be its lack of a clear go-to option on offense. If Butler keeps playing this way, that’s suddenly much less of a concern. Even if he doesn’t, bench gunners Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson can get hot and swing games, and both have proven postseason track records. On the defensive side Miami is an out-and-out menace, with Galactus-like center Bam Adebayo roaming the interior while Butler and Lowry wreak havoc on the perimeter, and undersized bruiser P.J. Tucker bullies wings and post players alike. Finally, lurking at the end of their bench is shooting guard Victor Oladipo, who hasn’t played yet in this series but was an All-Star before injuries derailed his career. Oladipo recently went off for 40 points in the Heat’s (meaningless) regular-season finale.

Miami is really, really good, and if everything keeps trending in the direction we’re seeing (still a big “if” at this stage of things), we’re headed for a Miami-Philly second-round series that could break new ground in the annals of basketball anti-heroism, seven games’ worth of flails, flops, sniping at refs, hold-me-back-bro fake fights, 10,000 solemn incantations of the word Legacy. Thankfully by then I should at least be able to leave my house.

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