They appreciate just how difficult getting here can be, let alone making the next step, to the NBA Finals.
“I want our guys to just step back at least for a night, if not two nights, and just reflect,” said coach Erik Spoelstra, who gave his team Wednesday off following Tuesday night’s 103-94 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks that gave the franchise its first berth in the Eastern Conference finals since 2014.
“It’s not easy to get to the conference finals and our organization knows that. We’ve been trying desperately to get back to the conference finals. It’s not our ultimate goal, we get it. But you can still acknowledge the journey and how hard it is just to get to this point.”
It is the franchise’s eighth trip to the league’s penultimate playoff perch, five times making it to the NBA Finals and three times securing championships.
In 1997, in Pat Riley’s second season as franchise steward, the initial trip to the playoff’s third round meant a 4-1 exit to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls
In 2005, there was the sting of a 4-3 loss to the Detroit Pistons, with injuries creating a sobering reality.
Then, in 2006, a 4-2 breakthrough against those same Pistons and the franchise’s first championship, behind the play of Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal.
A five-year gap would follow, before reloading with the Big Three of Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh in the 2010 offseason and making four successive trips to the NBA Finals.
In 2011, it was winning the Eastern Conference finals in five games against the Bulls, before losing the NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks.
In 2012, it was a tenuous seven-game escape against the Boston Celtics in the East finals before securing the franchise’s second championship, against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In 2013, it was the challenge of another seven-game survival, against the Indiana Pacers, before championship success against the San Antonio Spurs.
And, most recently, before this latest breakthrough, a 4-2 push past the Pacers in the 2014 East finals, before losing the NBA Finals to the Spurs.
Since then, every front-office move by Riley and every check signed by Micky Arison has been based on reclaiming these heights, and taking that ultimate step toward more fabric waving from the rafters at AmericanAirlines Arena.
In the interim, there was the loss, reunion, and then retirement of Wade; the blood clots and retirement with Bosh; the failed reloading with Hassan Whiteside, James Johnson and Dion Waiters; the brief youth movement with Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson.
“That is why we brought Jimmy Butler here," Spoelstra said. "That is why we put this team together with the veterans, adding Andre [Iguodala] and Jae [Crowder], building around Goran [Dragic] and Bam [Adebayo], and having a young core — was to try to do something in the playoffs.
“It’s not easy to get to the conference finals. Otherwise every team would be doing it. And we’ve been at this for 25 years under the Riley-Arison leadership. We’ve tried every single year to just get to this level.”
For five seasons, it never was quite good enough. For the previous three seasons, there had been a single playoff-game victory.
Then came the league’s March 11 shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic and July restart at Disney World in a quarantine setting, and games without fans on the neutral courts of the Wide World of Sports complex.
And now, this most unique of opportunities, a best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals with no road games, no travel, but very much the prospect of further molding something enduring, something sustainable for when the times eventually again are normal.
“It just shows you how competitive this league is,” Spoelstra said of the getting knocked down, reloading so many times, before being back on this footing. "It doesn’t happen every year and we don’t take it for granted. We’re grateful for the opportunity that we’ve had.
“It has been an extraordinary year. There’s been so much going on and we’re just grateful to be a part of this bubble and this opportunity.”
Erik Spoelstra has helped lead the Miami Heat to five Eastern Conference finals appearances in his 12 seasons as head coach.
That’s a lot, but even Spoelstra appreciates how challenging it is to reach that point.
“I want our guys to just step back at least for a night, if not two nights and just reflect,” Spoelstra said following the Heat’s series-clinching win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night. “It’s not easy to get to the conference finals and our organization knows that. We’ve been trying desperately to get back to the conference finals. It’s not our ultimate goal, we get it. But you can still acknowledge the journey and how hard it is just to get to this point.”
The Heat is on its way to the conference finals for the first time since the final season of the Big 3 era in 2014. This marks Miami’s eighth appearance in the conference finals during Pat Riley’s 25 seasons with the organization.
The Heat is also only the second No. 5 seed to advance to the conference finals since 2000, with the only other coming in the 2013 playoffs when the fifth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies were swept by the second-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals.
“That is why we brought Jimmy Butler here, that is why we put this team together with the veterans and added Andre [Iguodala] and Jae [Crowder], building around Goran [Dragic] and Bam [Adebayo], and having a young core was to try to do something in the playoffs,” Spoelstra said. “It’s not easy to get to the conference finals. Otherwise every team would be doing it. And we’ve been at this for 25 years under the Riley-Arison leaderhip. We’ve tried every single year to just get to this level. It just shows you how competitive this league is. It doesn’t happen every year, and we don’t take it for granted.”
The Heat will take on the winner of the second-round series between the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals. The Celtics hold a 3-2 second-round series lead over the Raptors, with Game 6 set for Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.
Miami could have a full week off if the East finals don’t begin until Tuesday, as some around the league expect.
The Heat’s defense is suddenly much better than mediocre, especially late in games. And that makes a big difference.
Miami finished the regular season with the NBA’s 12th-best defensive rating, allowing 109.3 points per 100 possessions. The Heat finished with a top-10 defense in each of the previous four seasons.
The question was: Could Miami improve enough defensively to have success in the playoffs?
So far, the answer is yes. The Heat has posted the fourth-best defensive rating since the postseason began, allowing 105.4 points per 100 possessions.
Versatile and experienced defenders such as Crowder, who has become a starter, and Iguodala are getting more playing time, especially in fourth quarters. The two Heat lineups used most, by far, in the final period during the playoffs includes Dragic, Butler, Tyler Herro, Adebayo, and either Crowder or Iguodala.
The Dragic-Butler-Herro-Adebayo-Crowder group has logged 22 fourth-quarter minutes since the postseason began and is a plus-28 with an elite defensive rating of 64.1. And the Dragic-Butler-Herro-Adebayo-Iguodala combination is a plus-10 in 27 fourth-quarter playoff minutes, with a quality defensive rating of 102.
The result: The Heat owns the second-best fourth-quarter defensive rating in the playoffs, allowing just 97.1 points per 100 possessions.
Pair that with a very good fourth-quarter offensive rating of 117.9 in the postseason, and the Heat has outscored its playoff opponents by a combined score of 250-204 in the final period — a league-best 46-point fourth-quarter margin in the postseason.
Defense and late-game execution are two of the biggest driving forces behind Miami’s 8-1 start to the playoffs.
While the Heat’s defense has been dramatically better in the postseason, its offense continues to be one of the best in the league.
Miami’s offense was already one of the NBA’s best in the regular season, when it posted the seventh-best offensive rating (scoring 111.9 points per 100 possessions). That success has carried over to the playoffs, where the Heat has scored 112.9 points per 100 possessions in the first two rounds.
The Heat’s offensive numbers in the playoffs are very close to the ones it produced in the regular season.
Miami shot 46.8 percent from the field in the regular season. It’s shooting 46.1 percent in the playoffs.
Miami made 13.4 threes per game and shot 37.9 percent from deep in the regular season. It has made 14.1 threes per game and shot 38 percent from deep in the playoffs.
Miami averaged 112 points per game in the regular season. It has scored 112.1 points per game in the playoffs.
This is a good sign because there were questions whether the Heat could sustain its top-10 level offense in the playoffs against more challenging competition that has more time to game plan. So far, Miami’s offense has been almost exactly as good in the postseason as it was in the regular season.
The Heat’s All-Star center has not disappointed in his first postseason as a starter.
Adebayo also played in the playoffs as a rookie, but he averaged just 15.4 minutes of playing time in a limited role off the bench.
In just two years, Adebayo has a come a long way. In his second trip to the playoffs and first as a full-time starter, the 23-year-old has averaged 16.2 points on 54.1 percent shooting from the field and 87 percent shooting from the foul line, 11.7 rebounds and 4.8 assists in 35.3 minutes in nine games.
At this pace, Adebayo is on track to become just the fifth player in NBA history to average at least 16 points, 11 rebounds and four assists in the playoffs while shooting 54 percent or better from the field. The other names on that list are Wilt Chamberlain, Charles Barkley, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Adebayo also has recorded the second-best plus/minus on the team since the playoffs began at plus-75. Only Dragic has been better at plus-81.
Another encouraging sign from Adebayo: He has shown the willingness to take and the ability to make midrange shots that opponents are daring him to shoot in the postseason.
After shooting just 21 of 94 (22.3 percent) on midrange shots in the regular season, Adebayo is 10 of 19 (52.6 percent) on those shots in the playoffs. He was 8 of 14 on midrange opportunities in the Heat’s second-round series against the Bucks.
Playoff Jimmy can do more than just score in the paint and at the foul line.
Butler, the Heat’s max-contract star, is averaging 21.8 points on 47.7 percent shooting from the field, 5.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.1 steals this postseason.
Those numbers aren’t too far off from the ones he averaged in the regular season.
So, what’s different about playoff Jimmy? He’s making more outside shots.
Butler took 4.9 non-paint shots per game in the regular season and made just 28.8 percent of them.
Most of Butler’s offense is still coming in the paint and at the foul line in the playoffs, as he’s attempting just 3.9 non-paint shots in the postseason. The difference is he has made 15 of 35 (42.9 percent) of his non-paint shots in the playoffs.
That’s a pretty drastic improvement for Butler, who shot 24.4 percent on threes in the regular season (the worst three-point percentage since his rookie season). He’s 9 of 18 on threes in the postseason.
As the numbers indicate, Butler isn’t settling for more outside shots in the playoffs. He’s just making more of them.
Butler is averaging 8.4 paint points and 10.7 free-throw attempts per game in the postseason. That’s the most free-throw attempts among players still competing in the playoffs.
Dragic has also been effective in the paint, as the 6-3 veteran guard is averaging 8.7 paint points per game in the playoffs (up from 5.2 paint points in the regular season). He has averaged 21.1 points while shooting 45.8 percent shooting from the field and 38.1 percent shooting on threes, 4.4 rebounds and 4.7 assists this postseason.
Herro is in the middle of one of the best postseasons a Heat rookie has ever had.
Before this season, only four Heat rookies had averaged more than 10 points in the playoffs while playing in three or more games: Dwyane Wade, Steve Smith, Eddie House and Michael Beasley.
Herro, 20, is on track to become the fifth Heat rookie to join that list, averaging 14.7 points on 41.3 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent shooting on threes, 4.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 32.3 minutes per game. He leads all NBA rookies with his playoff scoring average this season.
“He’s a professional and he’s going to be in this league for a very long time, since he’s 20 years old,” Butler said of Herro. “But he’s just so comfortable, so confident. He plays with a swag that you’d think he was going on 31 like me. And we love him for that. We want him to stay that exact same way as we move into the Eastern Conference finals.”
Taking Smith out of this conversation because he only played in three postseason games as a rookie, Wade’s rookie playoff campaign is really the only one that compares in franchise history to what Herro is doing this season.
Wade, widely considered as the best player in Heat history, averaged 18 points on 45.5 percent shooting from the field, four rebounds and 5.6 assists in 13 playoffs games as a rookie. For now, Herro is second to those Wade numbers when it comes to best Heat rookie playoff campaigns.
One impressive stat regarding Herro: Spoelstra has trusted him to play a team-high 102 fourth-quarter minutes in the postseason.