MIAMI (AP) — This was not the season the Miami Heat envisioned.
They spent 65% of the season mired in seventh place or lower in the Eastern Conference standings. They spent two weeks spanning late January and early February in 13th place. It took until Game 37 — just past the midway point — to get over.500 for the first time. They couldn’t shoot. They couldn’t stay healthy. They couldn’t escape COVID-19.
Somehow, they’re not complaining.
“This has been a really enjoyable season — and that includes all of the adversities and incredible challenges,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
The next challenge is here, and how Miami handles this one will determine if the season gets even more enjoyable or if it ends. The defending East champions wound up as the No. 6 seed and open the postseason on Saturday against the third-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, one of the teams they beat in last season’s playoffs on their way to the NBA Finals.
Milwaukee took the regular season series 2-1, which likely serves as a confidence boost to the Bucks. At the same time it likely doesn’t seem daunting to the Heat considering that Jimmy Butler — who simply willed Miami’s run to the finals last season — didn’t play in any of those three games. He’ll play Saturday, and the Heat chances largely rest on what he can do.
“We’re ready for anything,” Butler said. “You leave the past in the past. All the wins, all the losses, all the mishaps, all the great fortune … it’s a different time of the year right now. You’re supposed to be playing your best basketball, be healthy and the first one to 16 wins. So, we’ve got to start with the first four.”
It wasn’t the easiest path for the teams that ended last season looking like the NBA’s elite.
The four teams that went deepest in the restart bubble at Walt Disney World last year, and therefore had the shortest offseasons entering this season, all had their challenges. The Heat — one of the NBA’s best 3-point shooting teams last season — fell to the bottom half of the league in that department this season. Boston and the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers both needed to win play-in tournament games to earn the No. 7 seeds in the East and the West postseason. Denver started 17-15 before winning 30 of its final 40 games to take the West’s No. 3 seed.
But an up-and-down year is looking up for Miami. The Heat won 11 out of 12 games in one midseason stretch and still sat at 28-28 with 16 games remaining. The Heat went 12-4 from there, for one simple reason.
“We got healthy,” center Bam Adebayo said.
And now they’re off to start defending the East title, with five of their six leading scorers from last season’s series against Milwaukee still in Heat uniforms. They no longer have Jae Crowder, who averaged 15.2 points in 33 minutes in those five games against the Bucks last season, but virtually every other member of the rotation from that matchup is back.
“I truly believe we have a different group of guys, who’ve been battled-tested and been through a lot, ups and downs — and stayed even and pretty much consistent throughout it all and can fight through adversity,” Heat guard Kendrick Nunn said. “I definitely have full confidence that we’ll be ready.”
TOP PHOTO: FILE – Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) goes up to shoot against Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez (11) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, March 2, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
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