When you’re LeBron James and you’re headed to The Finals for the ninth time in 10 years (10th time overall), you can sit on the court and stay emotionally detached, all but yawning as the other Lakers gathered around Saturday night for the trophy that comes with winning the Western Conference.
“Right now it don’t mean [bleep] unless I get it done,” James told ESPN, making it clear that reaching The Finals is just another step for him.
For most of the rest of the league, though, getting to The Finals is no small accomplishment. They hand out hardware for winning your conference for a reason. And even teams that lose in The Finals etch themselves into NBA history to a degree, say, that No. 1 seeds do not.
The Miami Heat, by eliminating the Boston Celtics in Game 6 Sunday 125-113, won the East. It was difficult. It was e-x-t-e-n-d-e-d, taking most of a year. And it deserved a moment or two of appreciation.
The Heat reached the championship series playing from down under as the East’s No. 5 seed, then methodically going through the Nos. 4, 1 and 3 seeds. (That No. 3, Boston, took care of No. 2 Toronto, so you could say the Heat went through the Raptors too.)
Where they are now, they’re still four victories shy of the goal players and coaches actually do talk about, the only goal that matters to an all-timer like James. But this level, this seam between what the Heat just did and the task awaiting them, is too significant and took too much work to simply skip over.
Miami emerged from the East by toppling the Pacers, the Bucks and the Celtics to the tune of a 12-3 playoff record. They earned the title shot against James, Miami’s former superstar, and that storied franchise from Los Angeles. They joined past underdogs such as the 1995 Houston Rockets and the 1999 New York Knicks in getting this far.
So whether they realize it or admit it or not, it’s kind of a big deal.
Especially to these five members of the Heat team, who checked some pretty important boxes merely by reaching The Finals:
Coach Erik Spoelstra
It’s a futile exercise debating where Spoelstra ranks in the pantheon of active NBA coaches. Some would say that four consecutive trips to The Finals (2011-14), with championships in ’12 and ’13, cemented Spoelstra near the top before this season even began. Lottery finishes in ’15, ’17 and ’19 might pump the brakes on that, along with the “he only won when he had LeBron” slights.
That’s why getting back to The Finals this year — without James and buddies Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh doing the heavy lifting the way they did on Spoelstra’s first four trips — is such a credit to him.
Instead of the game’s dominant “Big Three”, Spoelstra and the Heat did it with one all-NBA third team player (Jimmy Butler) and assorted parts that fit. The Heat play hard, they put defense first, they innovated as needed (the zone defense that dug Boston a 3-1 hole), they spread the offense around and they really do seem to put outcomes before egos, heading into The Finals opener Wednesday (9 ET, ABC).
There’s no way that all happens if not for this coach — with, in this case, the complete support of Godfather Pat Riley upstairs.
Many — as in me, for one — have underestimated Butler at each stage of his NBA development, from No. 30 pick in 2011 to a starter two years later to four straight All-Star selections. He won a Kia Most Improved Player Award in 2015, earned four All-Defensive Team berths and played chicken with the Chicago Bulls (and won) in the negotiation of his first big contract, also in 2015.
Butler’s reputation for a head that was growing as fast as his game got him traded from Chicago and later Minnesota. He didn’t endear himself to the Philadelphia 76ers, either, who instead invested in Tobias Harris as their third option behind Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Even when Miami wooed Butler with his four-year, $140.7 million contract in July 2019, the consensus on the largely self-made, 6-foot-7 wing was: “Not good enough to be the best player on a championship contender.”
Well look where he is now. At 31, with Bam Adebayo’s and Tyler Herro’s rapid ascension, Butler might not be the Heat’s best player for long. But he is their alpha, and he has led his team further than Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Blake Griffin, Paul George and several others considered more skilled or team-oriented.
“I’m not for everybody,” Butler said Sunday, “but here I am.”
Moving to Miami, Butler’s place in his team’s pecking order instantly became a non-issue. He wasn’t giving up the ball to Embiid or Simmons, he wasn’t obsessed with his paycheck behind Karl Anthony-Towns or Andrew Wiggins. No contented young stars uninterested in Butler’s candid and self-appointed style of leadership, not with the Heat.
“He’s being himself,” Adebayo said. “That’s what we love about Jimmy, he’s being himself. That’s hard knocks, that’s who he is. And we accept that here.”
Said Spoelstra: “He doesn’t have to make any apologies for who he is. We love him for who he is and what he’s all about. He impacts winning. I think everybody in the league has always known that. It’s not about stats. It’s not about anything else. He cares.”
Spoelstra and Butler spoke about the night the Heat recruited him and how, over dinner, neither the coach nor Pat Riley got a chance to make their formal pitch. He clicked with their style and plan, assuring them he was “in” before the money talk.
“More than anything, they wanted me to be here,” Butler said. “They told me, like, ‘Yo, you’re the guy that we want. We’re coming after you.’ … To be wanted, that’s what anybody wants in the world, not just basketball.”
Anyone familiar with Butler’s back story — being tossed out of his house by his single mother as a teenager in Tomball, Texas, then clawing up rung by rung through Marquette to a shot at the NBA — understands how important the Heat’s sense of home is to him.
Said Adebayo: “When Jimmy came into this team, he wanted to get in where he fit in. He didn’t come in like, ‘This is my show and this is how I’m going to do it. This is my way or the highway.’ He came in and bought into the system. He didn’t care if he scored.”
Butler is the best player on a championship contender, and I’m officially done underestimating him.
If they gave out MVPs in the conference finals, old man Iguodala — he’s 36 — might have grabbed it with his Game 6 contribution, not unlike the way he snatched the 2015 Finals MVP trophy.
Iguodala scored 15 points on 5-of-5 shooting, including all four of his 3-pointers. He had two steals, played almost 28 minutes and was a plus-20. He had, as some cranky Celtics fans put it on social media, the type of game Gordon Hayward should have had Sunday.
Mostly what Iguodala accomplished was reaching The Finals for the sixth consecutive postseason. His first five came with Golden State and now he’ll face James again, as he did from 2015-2018.
Certainly, Iguodala took a circuitous route to the 2020 Finals, even without the virus shutdown. Unhappy about being traded by the Warriors to the Grizzlies, he sat out the first 51 games with Memphis (while getting paid), until the Grizzlies shipped him to Miami in early February. The Heat promptly signed him to a two-year extension for another $30 million.
His work prior to the playoffs — 4.6 points in about 20 minutes — made the veteran of 16 NBA seasons look a bit like toast. But his ability to guard multiple positions and chip in offensively as he did Sunday had Spoelstra gushing anew about Iguodala’s “championship experience, championship pedigree.”
Herro wasn’t too happy with landing on the NBA’s All-Rookie second team this season, but there’s an easy fix for that. He just needs to swap spots with teammate Kendrick Nunn, a first-teamer whose star dimmed in the postseason. The Finals might present the ultimate stage on which to do that.
Nunn had been a revelation for the Heat in the regular season, scoring big (15.3 ppg) and starting all 67 games he played. But his role dwindled in the playoffs to 11.6 minutes and 3.2 points per game in just nine appearances.
One big reason was Herro, who showed he was ready for his postseason close-up by scoring 37 points off the bench in Game 4. That’s the NBA playoff record for a rookie reserve. Then Herro chipped in 19 points in Game 6 Sunday, with five rebounds and seven assists. He was on the floor the entire fourth quarter, when the Heat put the Celtics out by outscoring them 37-27.
There seemed to be genuine appreciation from Spoelstra for Dragic’s work with Miami not just this season but for the past six. That’s how long he’s been on board, arriving as James was exiting in the summer of 2014. The Slovenian point guard has been a consummate pro through the ups and downs — like Bosh’s abrupt retirement due to health issues — in Miami since.
The Heat had promised him better and now, reaching the Finals, made good on it.
“This was a promise that Pat [Riley] and I made to Goran Dragic six years ago, that we would have a contending team,” Spoelstra said. “No one would know those turn of events, a bunch of events that we couldn’t control, and he stayed with it. Stayed with it and we are able to build some solid pieces around him.”
Now 34, an All-Star in 2018 but stuck in the trainers’ room with injuries in his Miami stint, Dragic never has played this deep into a postseason. It’s hard to imagine him sounding more thrilled by winning The Finals than my reaching one.
“It’s unreal,” he said. “I’m full of emotions. I’m happy. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time, for 11, 12 years, and finally I’m here.”
It’s a big deal to a lot of them.
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