Each week during the 2022-23 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
The Miami Heat's championship window is closed
The shorthanded Miami Heat, six months removed from coming within an errant 3-pointer of beating the Boston Celtics en route to the NBA Finals for a second time in three years, allowed 134 points to their Eastern Conference rivals in a loss that temporarily dropped them out of the play-in tournament picture.
Wednesday's victory also improved the Celtics' record to a league-best 18-4.
"I feel like they're connected," Miami All-Star center Bam Adebayo said when I asked what difference he saw from Boston this season under first-year head coach Joe Mazzulla. "That's one thing you can see out there. They're connected as a team, and that's hard to find in this league — a team that's 1-15 connected."
How confident is Adebayo that the Heat can match that level of connectivity once Jimmy Butler returns to the fold (likely on Friday) and they can string together some lineup continuity for the first time in a month?
"We'll be back," Adebayo asserted. "We've had an up-and-down season these first 22 or 23 games. Never count us out, though. That's one thing I always say about us. You count us out, and we'll surprise you."
To put it more plainly, Heat veteran Udonis Haslem told Yahoo Sports, "It's a long year, and regardless of what our record is right now, I think everyone understands that at the end of the season we'll be right there."
The Heat are projecting confidence in the face of an offense that ranks 23rd and a defense — the bedrock of their recent success — that ranks outside the top 10. Their net rating (-1.2 points per 100 possessions) falls between the Washington Wizards and New York Knicks, worse than the lowly Los Angeles Lakers.
And they have every right to be confident. Haslem has seen it all before. He was teammates with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh when they began their Miami tenure with a 9-8 record. He was also on the Heat when Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Rodney McGruder and Luke Babbitt were the most consistent starters for a team that began the 2016-17 season with a 10-31 record and finished it 31-10.
This is what head coach Erik Spoelstra's teams do. They find their grind, one way or another. They were a fifth seed when they fought their way to the Finals inside the Orlando bubble, where mental toughness was as integral as their physical brand of basketball. They were six games below .500, owners of a bottom-four record in the East in mid-February 2021, then logged a top-four record in the second half of the season.
Even last year, when they recorded the conference's best regular season record, the Heat were fighting against falling to .500 in early December, when Butler and Adebayo were each battling multiple injuries.
If there was any concern about the wear and tear on Butler and Kyle Lowry, neither of whom has played more than 60 regular season games since 2019, or the depth beyond Adebayo and Tyler Herro, it was nowhere to be found in the TD Garden locker room between games against the East's measuring stick.
Lowry is the only member of the Heat who has appeared in all 22 of their games. The 36-year-old six-time All-Star and one-time champion has played more minutes than all but five players in the entire NBA, if only because Miami's injury report is 10 men deep. Butler (knee), Herro (ankle) and Gabe Vincent (knee) have all missed significant time. Spoelstra is testing rookie Nikola Jovic and undrafted free agents Jamal Cain, Dru Smith, Orlando Robinson and Haywood Highsmith, trying to find his next Duncan Robinson or Max Strus.
And they're staying afloat. They're patching together a zone defense every night that has been effective, at least for four wins against the Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards. The Heat have played 611 possessions of zone this season, almost twice as much as any other team in the league and nearly as much as they played all of last season, according to Second Spectrum. Their 27.8 zone possessions per game more than doubles the highest frequency in the tracking data era, and their defense goes from a league-best rate in those sets (0.987 points allowed per possession) to a league-worst rate in man to man (1.181).
That feels unsustainable against elite shooting contenders like the Celtics and Golden State Warriors, who have created an average of 33 open or wide-open 3-point attempts per game in four meetings against the Heat and shot 48% on them. On the bright side, Spoelstra feels more comfortable in man defense with Butler in the lineup, as Miami is playing only 10% of its zone possessions with its best player in the game.
They go from gimmicky to the real deal awfully quick with Butler, who, as Strus reminded us, "is one of the best players in the league," especially come playoff time. With Butler, Adebayo and Lowry on the floor together this season, the Heat are outscoring opponents by 9.2 points per 100 possessions — right around what they did last season, when they had the East's best record and nearly emerged from the conference.
They still must get to that playoff gauntlet with enough juice to make a splash. Three straight wins before a hard-fought loss to Boston, all without Butler, gives Haslem reason to believe Miami has the depth to do it, even after losing P.J. Tucker's defensive toughness and 3-point shooting to free agency over the summer.
"Everybody wants to assume we have the same team, but as much as everything's the same, things are a little different," he told Yahoo Sports. "Obviously, a little more responsibility falls on the guys that didn't have as much responsibility last year, so that comes with being a little more accountable and things like that. We're trending in the right direction, working our habits. Once we get everybody healthy, we'll be fine."
Haslem's "fine" is relative. Even if the Heat reach similar heights with Caleb Martin in Tucker's role, it took all they had to push Boston to seven games, and the Celtics are better. Likewise, the Milwaukee Bucks are improved from the team Miami ousted in 2020, when Jae Crowder manned the power forward position.
Miami was an upgrade away at the four position from bullying its way to two titles, and that gap widened with so much asked of Martin. The Heat are actively looking to narrow it, according to league sources. Crowder is available again, as could be Kyle Kuzma, P.J. Washington, Obi Toppin and Jarred Vanderbilt.
Pat Riley, Miami's 77-year-old executive extraordinaire, is surely looking for a starker upgrade. Is Robinson, Martin and a couple of first-round draft picks enough to convince the Atlanta Hawks to deal John Collins in the division? Is Herro and every pick possible enough if Kevin Durant begs off the Brooklyn Nets again?
Point being, the healthy Heat have enough to "be right there," the means to improve a position of need and the motivation to maximize a window that Butler and Lowry can only keep open for so much longer. They'll be "fine," they can easily be better, and good luck answering to Bam Adebayo if you've counted him out.
Determination: Fiction. The Miami Heat's championship window is open.
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