The Miami Heat surprised nearly everyone to start the season, jumping out to a 24-9 start that had some pundits ready to declare them a darkhorse to come out of the Eastern Conference. Since then they've seen a slight fall from grace sliding down from the second seed in the Eastern Conference to the fourth seed.
The Heat are just 4-6 in their last ten games heading into a marquee matchup on Tuesday with the Milwaukee Bucks.
It's a classic fork in the road game in which the narrative about Miami's big picture prospects can take a sharp turn in either direction. Win against a juggernaut pushing for 70 wins and folks might start hopping back on the Heat bandwagon. Lose and the concerns about their ability to compete with the league's elite will only grow louder.
We asked our NBA.com staff: should we cool off on the Heat?
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): No, I think the Heat are still a viable option to make noise in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
This is still a team with Jimmy Butler, who when the lights are on is still one of the best performers in the league. Butler's clutch time stats have been a mixed bag this season. He's still among the best in the league in clutch scoring at 3.6 points according to NBA Stats. He's also learned to trust his young teammates in the clutch as his assists numbers are on par with known prime time playmakers Luka Doncic and LeBron James.
His shooting percentages, however, leave a lot to be desired. Butler is shooting just 30.4% from the field and 15.8% from three in the final five minutes of a game that's within five points. Not ideal.
On the flip side, Butler has been able to get to the foul line more than any other player in the clutch who's played at least 10 clutch games according to NBA Stats. That's a huge positive.
The Heat will ultimately go as far as Butler can carry them this season and right now in close games he's still giving them chances to win. No need to cool off the Heat just yet as long as Butler is still a prime clutch performer.
Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): You're grilling a thick piece of chicken. It's been marinating overnight, smells delicious and after a few minutes on the grill looks delectable. The grill marks are perfect, the juices are running and the fat burning off sizzles over the coals causing the occasional flare up. You pull the chicken off the heat, bring back inside to the kitchen and the whole dinner party oohs and aahs over how fantastic it looks. The moist chicken is plated and everyone sits down to eat. And then, one by one, everyone starts cutting into it. From the outside, it looked and smelled the part. But it's not cooked all the way through. The chicken just wasn't quite ready.
That's the Miami Heat.
During that 25-9 start, the chicken looked amazing. They had the fourth-best record in the entire NBA including a win on the road at Milwaukee in the second game of the season. But they also had a point differential that ranked just ninth, the mark of a good team... just not a great team.
Since that point in time Miami is 13-13, a far cry from that gaudy 25-9 start. They're also 12th in point differential, not much different than during that seemingly hot start.
|Stat||1st 36 Games||Since|
Don't be fooled by either record because it's really quite simple. The Heat are who we thought they were: a good team.
Nothing more, nothing less.
We have a tendency to do this thing where either we're all the way in or all the way out on a team. If a team doesn't have what it takes to go all the way or win a title, they're chopped liver.
Butler has serious postseason ability and can go toe-to-toe with anyone over the course of a series. Adebayo is a brilliant, smart two-way player that's strong as an ox and about as close as it gets to the prototypical modern big. Beyond those two, Miami just doesn't have the talent or experience to seriously compete with the ruling class. And that's OK!
Barring a major shakeup at the trade deadline (acquiring 36-year-old Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder doesn't qualify as "major"), this was never supposed to be Miami's year to jump in the Finals fray. There's no denying that Pat Riley is cooking something juicy in Miami. It's just not done yet.
Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): Yeah, I think it's time we cool off on the Heat, even if it's ever-so-slightly.
Honestly, this isn't meant to be a bad thing, either. Miami caught most everyone by surprise with its hot start to the season - a testament to the Heat culture, scouting, development of young talent and the presence of Jimmy Butler.
I won't sit here and say they've overachieved, but I will say that this team is ahead of schedule and its best days will come in future years.
Butler has been there before, as has the likes of Jae Crowder, Goran Dragic, Andre Iguodala, Meyers Leonard and Kelly Olynyk but the team has heavily relied on the rookie duo of Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson and All-Star Bam Adebayo, who has some playoff experience but not as a featured player.
Once this team takes the postseason bumps and bruises that seem to be the prerequisite to make a deep run, we can turn up the temperature but until then, I see this team peaking with one series win, depending on who they happen to meet.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.