A year after finishing with the best record in the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat find themselves in a much different situation heading into this year’s postseason.
The Heat are currently 43-37 and are seventh in the East standings with two outings remaining on their regular season schedule. They still have a realistic chance of catching the Brooklyn Nets, who lead them by one game, for the sixth seed and an automatic playoff berth, though they are most likely heading to the play-in tournament.
Miami has struggled to find a rhythm all season long and it is largely attributed to several key players struggling with injuries. Among their starters, Jimmy Butler has missed 17 games, Tyler Herro sat out 15, and Kyle Lowry was unable to suit up for 27. The Heat’s inability to find consistency is highlighted by the fact that they have yet to cobble together a winning streak longer than four games in this campaign.
However, many of the reasons why Miami was able to secure the top spot in the East last year and push the Boston Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals still ring true to this day which makes them an ever dangerous match-up in the upcoming postseason.
The Heat have stuck to their identity as a defense-oriented team and are ninth in Defensive Rating this season. The defensive versatility of starting center Bam Adebayo is a major reason for this and he was rewarded with his second career NBA All-Star appearance in last February’s festivities. His impact has also pushed him into the conversation for this year’s NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
On the other end of the court, they are 25th in Offensive Rating, but still have one of the best closers in the league in the six-time NBA All-Star Butler. It is clear that head coach Erik Spoelstra respects Butler’s ability to control a contest in the dying minutes and Miami’s play style is an explicit reflection of this. The Heat are second to the last in pace and this plays directly to the strengths of the deliberate approach taken by the cerebral Butler on offense.
Although Butler has flown under the radar this season and did not make this year’s NBA All-Star team, he is actually in the midst of the second highest scoring season of his career in terms of points per game. Butler is averaging 22.9 points per game on a career-best 53.7% field goal shooting along with 5.9 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 1.9 steals.
His best season as a scorer came six years ago in ‘16-’17 which was his last season with the Chicago Bulls and underscores the longevity of the Marquette product.
What makes Butler even more threatening to the rest of the East though is that he has perennially taken his game to another level come the playoffs. Back in 2020 when Miami made a run to the NBA Finals, Butler’s scoring averages went from 19.9 in the regular season to 22.2 over 21 playoff games. He made an even more impressive leap last year where he bumped up his average from 21.4 points per game to 27.4 through 17 postseason matches.
In their most recent outing, Butler and the Heat hinted that this phenomenon is likely to continue this year as they pulled off an impressive 129-101 win over the third place Philadelphia 76ers. Butler led the way in the victory with 24 points on an efficient nine-of-12 field goal shooting. He also had three rebounds, six assists, and an astonishing zero turnovers.
Tyler Herro also finished with 24 points, five three-pointers, four rebounds, and five assists while four others had at least 11 points for Miami.
The Heat are now on a three-game winning streak and could conceivably stretch this to five games, which would be a season-high, as they close out the regular season. They are clearly peaking at the right time and will be a match-up nightmare for whomever they face in the coming weeks.
Whether it be in the play-in tournament or the opening round of the playoffs if they can eventually qualify, at least one of the East’s teams will first have to prove that they can handle the Heat before they entertain any aspirations of a deep postseason run.