The Miami Heat were the top seed in the Eastern Conference this season. However, they've been an underdog, of sorts, since midway through the second round of the playoffs, and perhaps even before then.
After taking care of the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the first round, the Heat jumped out to a 2-0 lead over the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals, but both of those early wins came with MVP runner-up Joel Embiid sidelined with a concussion and a broken bone in his face. When Embiid returned to action, the Sixers reeled off two straight wins to even the series up at 2-2.
At that point, there were many that expected the Sixers to go on to win the series. Ultimately, they didn't have enough juice to complete the comeback and Miami closed them out in six games. But, there were still plenty of pundits (myself included) who wondered what the series outcome would have looked like had Embiid been healthy for its entirety. Nonetheless, the Heat took care of business against Philly and advanced to their second conference finals appearance in the last three seasons.
But, while they were able to handle the Sixers, the Heat still entered their conference finals matchup against the Boston Celtics as a sizeable underdog, despite the fact that they were technically the higher seed and thus had homecourt advantage. Out of our eight NBA writers here at CBS Sports, not a single one of us picked the Heat to win the series over the Celtics.
Not only did none of us have the Heat advancing, one one of eight had the series going further than six games. Similarly, out of 20 ESPN writers that provided predictions for the series, only four picked Miami to advance.
The doubt wasn't limited to media members, either. When asked who he thought Golden State would be squaring off against in the NBA Finals, Warriors forward Draymond Green didn't hesitate. "I'll tell you who we're gonna play," he said. "We're gonna play Boston."
The Heat obviously haven't let the opinions of naysayers creep into their locker room, which is a credit to them. Instead, they've displayed consistent resiliency. Once Philly tied the series up, the Heat didn't crumble. They answered with a dominant performance in front of their home fans in Game 5, and then they closed the series out in front of the Philadelphia faithful in Game 6.
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With the betting odds stacked against them heading into the series with Boston, Miami responded with an impressive double-digit victory in Game 1. Then, on the brink of elimination with most counting them out after two straight ugly losses in Games 4 and 5, the Heat pulled out a 111-103 victory in Game 6 in order to extend the series -- and their season -- and force a decisive Game 7 on Sunday night.
In Game 6, the Heat showed a collective ability to bounce back, as did several key contributors on their roster. After scoring 27 total points in Games 3, 4 and 5, Jimmy Butler willed the Heat to victory with a playoff career-high 47 points in Game 6. He also added nine rebounds and eight assists in what was arguably the best performance of the postseason so far.
Similarly, Kyle Lowry had more points (18) and assists (10) in Game 6 than he had in the rest of the series combined. Both of those guys have been battling injury issues this postseason, but they've clearly tried to fight through them and be available for their team. Then there was Max Strus, who scored 13 points and hit five of his 12 attempts from the field in Game 6 after shooting 0-for-16 in Games 4 and 5.
The fact that Miami was able to extend the series without the services of reigning Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro, who is sidelined with a strained groin, makes it even more impressive. Herro has had his struggles this postseason, but he is still an important part of Miami's attack on the offensive end. It's not always pretty, but the Heat continue to find ways to win. Following their loss to Boston in Game 4, coach Erik Spoelstra summed up his squad pretty succulently.
"Our guys love competition and our team has proven that we have a bunch of different ways that we can find a solution to get a win," Spoelstra said. "We can do it in the mud. We can win it ugly. We can win it when the floodgates come open hitting 3s. We can do it with Jimmy (Butler) taking over a game. We can do it when he's facilitating. We have the mental fortitude and the collective toughness to be able to embrace what we have."
The Heat now sit just one win away from their second NBA Finals appearance in the past three seasons -- a place that few pegged them to be prior to the start of the postseason. Being overlooked is nothing new for this Heat team, though, as it's something that's happened to them all year. Throughout the regular season, Miami flew under the radar while other teams in the East -- like the Nets, Bucks and 76ers -- dominated the headlines.
Now, the Heat will enter Game 7 on their home court on Sunday night as slight underdogs. But if this season has taught us anything, it's this -- bet against the Heat at your own risk.