The 2020-21 NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful offseason we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.
The Miami Heat were an average regular-season playoff team by every measure before catching fire in the clutch for two playoff rounds and fizzling out in their six-game NBA Finals loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
There are plenty of arguments to be made about whether Miami could be a better regular-season team this season, but to recreate the playoff magic against the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics would be to defy the odds again. Whether it was a Heat culture of conditioning that made them uniquely prepared to endure the Orlando bubble, a run of ridiculously hot shooting or a bit of pre-Finals injury luck — or a combination of the three — Miami’s run through the Eastern Conference was an anomaly that is unlikely to be duplicated.
Few teams benefited more from the suspension of the season than the Heat. The break afforded Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro time to rest respective toe and ankle injuries, which threatened to cost both players more games. Goran Dragic, their 34-year-old point guard, received four months of rest that surely played a role in the resurrection of his All-Star form. And an additional training camp allowed them to integrate trade deadline acquisitions Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala into their roles as rotational playoff contributors.
It is the addition of Crowder and Iguodala, who bolstered a wing rotation that was relying on playoff neophytes Kendrick Nunn and Derrick Jones Jr., that is most often cited as reason for the Heat’s transformation from a fifth-seeded team that outscored opponents by 2.7 points per 100 possessions during the regular season to one that nearly doubled that margin during its playoff run through the East.
There is some truth to that, largely because Crowder morphed from a below-average 3-point shooter for his career into an elite one in Miami’s five-game conference semifinals victory against the Bucks. He converted 43.1% of his 10.2 attempts per game, the equivalent of an average Stephen Curry season.
Conventional wisdom figured Iguodala for a more prominent playoff role, but Crowder often got the crunch-time nod, and he left for the Phoenix Suns in free agency, along with Jones Jr. Their roster spots were filled by Avery Bradley and Moe Harkless. Bradley is an undersized former All-Defensive guard who should further bolster the backcourt, provided he can avoid the injury issues that have plagued him throughout his career.
Harkless and the soon-to-be 37-year-old Iguodala will fill Crowder’s role, altering between forward positions in big and small lineups. They are less effective floor spacers than Crowder, both in terms of shooting accuracy and volume, so their emergence as series-swinging flamethrowers would be even more unlikely.
Then again, Iguodala’s biggest playoff moment for Miami — an unlikely 5-for-5 shooting effort that helped swing the decisive Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals — was indicative of how fortune fell the Heat’s way in the playoffs. Granted, a knack for clutch performances is the reason for acquiring Iguodala, but he was 4-for-20 from distance in his 10 previous playoff games before going 4-for-4 against Boston in Game 6.
Against the Bucks and Celtics, the Heat were plus-45 on 53/41/89 shooting splits in 37 clutch playoff minutes, finishing 8-2. Nine of their 11 contests in those two series were one-possession games in the final five minutes, and they won seven of them. Some of that may be attributed to superior conditioning, but for a team that finished the regular season 25th in clutch performance (outscored by 40 on 38/28/72 shooting splits in 153 clutch minutes and 18-18 record in close games), it is also safe to ascribe some luck to that.
For the record, Heat veteran Udonis Haslem disagreed with this sentiment, saying, “Don’t worry, these dogs stay hungry,” and there is surely something to be said for Miami’s hunger generating some of its good luck.
But theirs was not unlike another low-seeded team’s run through the East in a shortened season. The 1999 New York Knicks were a middling team that caught clutch lightning in a bottle for three playoff rounds. They were a better regular-season team the following year, but their luck ran out in the 2000 conference finals.
It helped Miami this year that Milwaukee’s momentum in a potentially historic regular season was halted. Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo was hobbled by ankle injuries in Games 3 and 4 and missed all of Game 5 of their series. Veteran Celtics stars Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker were also both hobbled by injury in the conference finals. Of course, were it not for injuries to Dragic and Bam Adebayo in Game 1 of the Finals, the anomalous Heat might have seriously challenged the Lakers for the bubble championship.
Dragic’s resurgence was also among the biggest factors in Miami’s turnaround. The 12-year veteran moved to the bench after knee surgery cost him half his 2018-19 season. In his role as a sixth man, often against second units, Dragic averaged 16.1 points (44/38/77 shooting splits), 5.1 assists and 3.1 rebounds in 28.2 minutes per game. That production translated over 34.6 minutes a night in the playoffs. He averaged a 21-5-4 on 45/36/81 splits before suffering a plantar fascia tear that may have been tied to his added workload.
Can the Heat expect him to carry a similar burden into the 2021 playoffs at age 35? More likely, the Heat will depend on the development of Herro and Adebayo to offset any decline from Dragic — development that presumably would have had to happen in the six weeks between Game 6 of the Finals and the start of training camp. Can that also mask the departure of Crowder and the good fortune they enjoyed in the East?
This is not to take away from what they accomplished in the bubble. Adebayo’s game-saving block in Game 1 of the conference finals, Herro’s 37-point outburst three games later and Butler’s ability to go toe-to-toe with LeBron James in multiple Finals games were all remarkable. They are also difficult to replicate.
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