DETROIT — The battle for playoff positioning in the Western Conference is surely compelling, but perhaps there’s no team that strikes more uncertainty in the minds of a potential playoff opponent than the Miami Heat.
Any hope to catch the sixth-seeded, pesky and frisky Brooklyn Nets, went away this week, but in reality, the best chance of avoiding the play-in tournament seemed to fly away from Biscayne Bay a couple weeks ago when the Nets delivered a 29-point beatdown on the Heat in Miami.
Miami finds itself in the play-in after being unable to find that elusive consistency that has been a hallmark for this franchise in the Pat Riley era. Its season-long winning streak was four games back in the middle of December, and shortly after hitting the high mark of seven games above .500, it was offset by an ensuing streak of losing six of the next seven games in late February.
“Are you talking about the Miami Heat or [are] you talking about 15, 16 other teams? That’s what competition and parity has brought out,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told Yahoo Sports recently. “It’s a lot of teams fighting to find that consistency. And we’re one of those teams, no doubt about it. We have not been able to get a grip on things. But we have to embrace the struggle, embrace the opportunities and embrace competition.”
Spoelstra said the statement with a smile, the only time he’d allow himself a moment to zoom out, look around and pull himself from the lather of his team. The Heat have battled injuries and inconsistencies on the floor, but still feel very respected, if not feared, in the big picture.
Facing Boston or Milwaukee, arguably the NBA’s two best teams, doesn’t feel like the first step on the road back to the conference finals, where a gritty, thrilling seven-game series against the Celtics ended because Jimmy Butler’s tired legs couldn’t get enough lift on a potential 3-pointer late in Game 7.
Spoelstra, summa cum laude graduate of the school of Riley, doesn’t rail against the play-in. He actually loves it.
“I think it’s been good for the game,” he said. “It’s one of the better things the league has done in the last decade. You’ve taken out a lot of the tanking. All of these games having so much meaning, you can’t afford to load manage, to take games off, to take games more seriously than other games. Every game is a playoff game for us.”
The Heat feel more built for postseason style than most seven seeds, even if the season lays out the inconsistency pretty bare. Their pace is second-to-last in the NBA and they’re last in scoring despite having three bona fides in the first five. But they’re top 10 in defensive efficiency and they don’t beat themselves, usually.
It seems to mimic Butler’s style, he who routinely elevates his game in the postseason and enters his name into the superstar conversation after largely being an afterthought to it during the regular season.
Butler’s deliberate approach draws side-eyes and calls from critics to shoot more and be more aggressive. He takes fewer shots per game than any scorer in the top 40, which feels by design. He probes more than he attacks — a surprise given his reputation as a take-no-quarter competitor.
The Heat roster isn’t filled with supreme shot creators. It’s not quite a group of try-hards, but it’s been some patchwork stuff around the edges. Spoelstra depends heavily on Max Strus, Caleb Martin and Gabe Vincent — players who’ve exceeded individual pre-NBA expectations, but it’s hard to see all three playing big minutes on bona fide contenders.
Veteran point guard Kyle Lowry, who signed a free-agent deal following the 2021 season, hasn’t been available much and is approaching his late 30s. Kevin Love was signed recently off the waiver wire when he and the Cavaliers parted ways.
It leaves Butler as the most dominant personality, along with Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro. Butler’s usage isn’t as high as his efficiency would call for, but so much does revolve around him offensively.
Spoelstra was fiercely protective of Butler and the notion his star is too passive, then playfully joking after Butler’s perfect fourth quarter against the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday night.
“Who said that? I have no clue,” Spoelstra said to the media. “You’ve never seen Jimmy take a bad shot. The average basketball fan, you can’t appreciate how many different things he does to impact winning, you’re not paying attention to all the aspects of the game — as a legit two-way player.”
After taking just five shots entering the fourth quarter, he took seven and made them all in the final 12 minutes. Again, it was the worst team in the league Butler was honing his craft on, but the “how” was as critical as the “who.”
“I’ve never been a volume shooter my entire career. Not only in the league, at Marquette, at junior college. I don’t need to shoot the ball 20 times to be effective,” Butler told Yahoo Sports. “If I wanted to shoot the ball 20 times, I could and then my numbers would go up. But I don’t play for numbers.”
He plays for wins and shutting people up. And it feels more is required than he already gives — giving enough to perhaps wind up on the back end of MVP ballots and All-NBA teams despite not making the All-Star team.
“I get in where I fit in,” Butler told Yahoo Sports. “If I need to shoot the ball in the fourth quarter, I get that. If I need to be aggressive in the third, I get that. First? I get that. I can read the game pretty well.”
Spoeltra gushed about Butler following the game, saying his clutch play and decision-making put him in the mind of Dwyane Wade, although he wouldn’t use Wade’s name.
“Going down the stretch, it really reminds me of somebody when he gets in that mode, you know … I am not going to say who that is,” Spoelstra said. “I’ll leave that to him. I’ll let you guys figure that out.”
Both Spoelstra and Butler aren’t interested much in what lessons were learned through this season that has led the Heat to this moment. They’re completely dismissive of assigning blame or even applying introspection while there’s much more basketball to be played.
When Butler was told of the Nets losing a game that helped draw the Heat a little closer to the sixth seed earlier in the race, he was equally dismissive of potential playoff consequences or opponents.
“I don’t give a damn,” Butler told Yahoo Sports. “I just love playing basketball. We can beat anybody when we’re playing the right way. Play-in, here we come. Playoffs, here we come.”
Here come the Heat, here comes Jimmy.