FOX Sports NBA Writer
In 2006, the Miami Heat advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. After knocking out the Boston Celtics, they’re back in the Finals for the seventh time.
How incredible is that for a grade?
No other NBA team has matched that number during that period, and only the Los Angeles Lakers have made eight finals more times this century.
How did the heat get here? And what do you need to know about them before they take on the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night?
I’m glad you asked.
[RELATED: Everything to know about the Nuggets]
1. You shouldn’t be in the NBA Finals
There’s basically no precedent for a team with the Heat’s statistical profile making it to the finals. They’re the second eight seeded players to reach that point, but that’s nothing compared to some of the other surprising stats you can cite about this group.
For example, the Heat outscored their opponents by 26 points in the regular season. Only one other team in NBA history has made it to the Finals after scoring excess points in the regular season, and you have to go back to 1959. The Heat are also the first team in NBA history to finish the regular season bottom in points per game and still make it to the Finals.
And don’t forget, just over a month ago they were trailing the Chicago Bulls in the second round of the play-in tournament with less than four minutes to go!
None of this is meant to belittle the heat. Rather, it is intended to illustrate how wonderful the run is that they are currently experiencing. They’ve become a different team in the playoffs, especially on offense. They had a batting average that would have equated to a top five mark during the regular season, and after shooting just 34.4% at range in the regular season, which is the fourth-worst mark in the league, they have 39% of theirs Scored a hat-trick.
2. The Heat would not have beaten the Celtics without J. Cole’s endorsement
In the summer of 2021, Caleb Martin returned to his native North Carolina after being released by the Charlotte Hornets. He and fellow North Carolina native J. Cole had developed a friendship over the years, and while waiting for another NBA shot, Martin spent his days working out at J. Cole’s gym.
“He asked me every day why I’m not with a team that trains at their facility,” Martin said in a recent interview with TNT. “And so he went straight to his contacts and called Caron.”
Caron is Caron Butler, an assistant Heat coach who J. Cole has been friends with since 2010. The Heat, according to one ESPN storyMartin already had on her board, but Butler’s push seemed to help Martin’s case.
“Can you be here tomorrow?” He texted Martin.
Martin was undrafted in 2019 and averaged just five points per game last season. He knew he had no choice. He flew to Miami, trained for the Heat, and shortly thereafter landed a two-way contract.
Martin has played well for the Heat for the past two seasons, but he exploded in this playoff run. He’s averaging 14.1 points and 5.7 rebounds while firing a paltry 43.8% of the 4.9 deep balls he’s thrown per game. And against the Celtics he was even better – arguably the best player on the Heat.
It wasn’t just because he increased his score to 19.3 points per game at a video game-like shot rate of 60%. It’s that the spot-up threes evolved into side-step and step-back triples, and the catch-and-shoots evolved into one-on-one attacks and run-stopping fadeaway jumpers.
“That might have surprised you all,” Jimmy Butler told reporters after Martin’s 26-point breakout in Game 7. “To the untrained eye, he just looks like an undrafted guy who was in the G League, who started at Charlotte and is here now. He started with a two-way contract. That’s how it is for all of you.” For us, he’s a great player, a great defender, playmaker, goalscorer, all together.”
The incredible thing is that Martin hardly stands out in this Heat roster. He’s one of seven (!) undrafted players who came on for them in this playoff run.
Looking for the best example of what Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra’s vaunted Heat Culture looks like? Look no further.
3. Playoff Jimmy is real and spectacular… but he could also run out of gas
What Butler has accomplished since joining the Heat four years ago is incredible. This is his second appearance at the Finals in four seasons. Last season, he and the Heat were only missing a late-game sieve and another finals appearance. In those four seasons, he played 59 playoff games and averaged 25 points, 6.9 rebounds and 5.6 assists. He rarely turns the ball and chases opposing stars.
He also has a knack for coming through in big moments, in a way that makes it feel like a challenge for him to rip the soul out of his opponents. But it’s also worth pointing out He’s only shot 42.4% in the last two seriesand against the Celtics there were times in Games 5, 6 and 7 when he didn’t seem explosive or capable.
The Heat’s chances against the Nuggets may well rest on Butler’s ability to rekindle the explosiveness that helped him break the Milwaukee Bucks.
4. You are about to have one Tyler Herro dilemma
Tyler Herro averaged 20.1 points per game during the regular season, the team’s third-highest mark. He was then eliminated in Game 1 of Round 1 with a broken hand and has been sidelined ever since.
Obviously, his absence doesn’t affect the Heat.
This is no coincidence. While Max Strus, Gabe Vincent and the rest of Herro’s backups aren’t as dynamic at dribbling as Herro, they are much better defensively and can do enough on offense to make up the difference.
According to Herro Bleacher report, could return to the pitch during the finals. The question then is what is the heat doing – and what should it be doing? Can they figure out how to integrate Herro into their current ecosystem without jeopardizing the foundations of their success?
They could use Herro’s scoring against the top-flight Nuggets but there won’t be much room for defensive error.
5. They play more zone defense than anyone else and are great at it
Erik Spoelstra has won two titles, but that playoff run will be what he will remember. It is the greatest testimony – and example – of his genius. Nobody in the NBA is better at getting more from less, and a perfect example of how he does that is the way he uses a zone defense.
No team plays nearly as far in the zone as the Heat, and in the Conference Finals it stunned the Celtics completely.
It will be fascinating to watch how and when the Heat use the zone against the Nuggets. On the surface, the Nuggets appear to be a team designed to take down a zone. They have plenty of throwers, good reapers and Nikola Jokic’s brilliant passing down the middle.
Then again, nothing about that heat run made sense. Why should we stop believing in them now?
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Boldest Trial in Professional Sports History. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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