If any truth can be held self-evident, it’s that in most NBA playoff games, both teams played hard, my man. During the regular season, teams may loaf their way to wins on talent alone, but postseason success requires sustained effort; it’s no longer sufficient for a team merely to have good players when everybody else has good players too. At a certain point, the result of any given action or possession or game lies in the finer degrees and margins—the vim of a cut, the vigor of a contest. There’s a reason that regular season loads are managed and that back-to-back games on slushy February nights are approached with melatonin torpor—the playoffs demand exhaustion.
From this crucible, the Miami Heat emerged as the Eastern Conference champion, largely because of their commitment to playing unsettlingly hard. Pat Riley and Erik Spolestra found the perfect avatar for Heat Culture in Jimmy Butler, exemplifying the institutional identity of righteous, psychotic competitiveness. In a parallel workaday universe, Butler would be considered unsteady, the guy who alienated his younger coworkers or showed up to his first day of work seven hours early to shame you into matching his grind. But on the Heat—on this business trip—he’s solidified his status as a surprising superstar for a surprising contender. His game is finite yet infinite—he could never imitate how Giannis Antetokounmpo or Jayson Tatum play, but they would never think to play the way that Butler plays. Whereas his All-NBA contemporaries unspool hardwood soliloquies, Butler disappears into thankless roles. Depending on the circumstance, he’ll moonlight as a pass-first initiator, perimeter defensive stopper, or small-ball big, before closing out games as a bruising scorer.
Just as dogs look like their owners, teams take on the characteristics of their best player. Offensively, the Heat are abuzz, synapses firing, guards and wings in perpetual motion, charting eddies and curlicues around point-center Bam Adebayo. The second most accurate three-point shooting team in the NBA, Miami dares opposing defenses to stay contained, betting that no team has the discipline or the endurance to do so. When this offense hums, it’s enough to make men in Russell Athletic shirts swoon.
Like a peacock’s plume, the Heat’s offense is beautiful by necessity; their offensive principals are delightful and good and wholly flawed all the same. Adebayo is a gundam reared on Joakim Noah highlights, a freakishly athletic and mobile playmaking big man whose overall facility with the ball masks his lack of range. Goran Dragic slaloms through pick-and-rolls with impish mischief on his way to team-high 20.9 points per game, although impish mischief alone rarely offers enough wattage to power a team on its own. Tyler Herro is a bucket—in his mind, if not Paul Pierce’s—but also a rookie with unmissable Hype House energy. Duncan Robinson is one of the most elite shooters alive, a roving deadeye in the vein of Klay Thompson or Kyle Korver, who fell through the cracks because he creates for himself at a NESCAC level. Simply put: if the Heat didn’t screen and cut so furiously, they wouldn’t be successful.
Defensively, the fruits of the Heat’s labor have resulted in a profound gunking-up of some of the NBA’s best offenses. They’ve revealed a fundamental, unspoken fact of defense: shots are only as open as you allow them to be. Against the Milwaukee Bucks, they throttled a team that had seemingly solved modern basketball, sardining bodies into the paint to discourage Antetokounmpo’s drives and then pinning their ears back and charging towards the three-point line to spook Milwaukee’s shooters. They forced Antetokounmpo to reveal that, at this point in his career, his scoring bag is more of a clutch than a duffel, and the Bucks’ suddenly rickety supporting cast couldn’t punish Miami’s gung-ho closeouts. After a pre-bubble season of thriving everywhere, the Bucks thrived nowhere. Per PBP Stats, the Heat held the Bucks to a 48.4 percent expected effective field goal percentage over these five games, a mark comparable to that of the 2005-06 New York Knicks.
In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat spent nearly 160 defensive possessions across six games crouching in a 2-3 zone defense, quelling the pipeline of drive-and-kick opportunities that Boston usually generates from isolations and pick-and-rolls. By flipping the traditional arrangement of the zone (Miami puts their forwards at the top of the zone and their guards on the flanks), the Heat used their length and activity to deny the Celtics any easy access to dangerous areas on the court. Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, Andre Iguodala, Derrick Jones Jr.: Gladiators on the Powerball field, repelling any and all challengers.
More notable than the Heat’s cunning, though, is their execution—as far as concepts go, moving around on offense and not letting the other team dunk a lot and make threes aren’t exactly metaphysics. In their run as the only fifth-seed to reach the Finals, the Heat have manifested excellence by giving a damn, providing an easily imitable blueprint for a post-super-team future. Recent champions have made winning seem impossible without cosmic luck: the Toronto Raptors needed a quadruple-doink; the Golden State Warriors built a hideously great dynasty because the salary cap serendipitously rose by the exact amount needed to add Kevin Durant; LeBron James was born near Cleveland and felt bad. But the Heat make winning look like a matter of practical magic—nothing they do is that remarkable besides how they do it. Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.