Over the All-Star break, I included the Miami Heat among my first-half winners despite the fact that they were just 18-18 over their first 36 games. The reason? They had weathered the COVID storm, which hit them as hard as anyone, and had won seven of eight heading into the break. Quick to be written off by those already skeptical of their run to the Bubble Finals, they were, and still are, a sleeping giant about to wake up with one hell of a chip on its shoulder.
That's when Miami is at its best.
That's when Jimmy Butler is at his best.
The Heat had won 10 straight games with Butler in the lineup before Wednesday's 89-85 loss to the Grizzlies. Digging deeper, since Butler returned from a 10-game COVID protocol absence on January 30, the Heat are 15-6 with the best defensive rating in the league, per Cleaning the Glass.
It's not all roses. The offense, per CTG, registers 18th over that same span, and 24th in fourth quarters, per NBA.com. But Miami is an offense designed to perform above its statistical sum in the playoffs. Butler is a proven shot creator, and he is now prioritizing his own scoring in a way he didn't do as much in his first season with the Heat. When he does create for others, Miami is littered with catch-and-shoot options who can collectively rain on opponents in volume.
Two physical ball-handlers like Butler, who again will demand superstar attention as a scorer in the playoffs, and Bam Adebayo -- and another in Goran Dragic who's still chock full of wily craft -- surrounded by shooters is a perfectly reliable playoff recipe.
And now Miami has traded for Trevor Ariza. That might not sound like a big deal. Ariza is sort of a forgotten name. He hasn't played a single game this season. He's probably not going to be the 3-and-D star he was with Houston, but he shot 40 percent from 3 on four attempts a game last season for the Blazers, and he adds to Miami's stable of versatile wing defenders that already includes Butler, Andre Iguodala, Avery Bradley, KZ Okpala and Mo Harkless. I would imagine the latter two will lose the most minutes to Ariza once he gets acclimated, assuming he earns a meaningful role.
With Adebayo, who can legitimately guard any position, and Butler who can come close to doing the same, surrounded by all these switchable parts, Miami is defensively designed to give Milwaukee and Philly postseason fits, and they can at least make life difficult on Brooklyn with multiple bodies to throw at Kevin Durant and the versatility to navigate James Harden's pick and rolls.
On paper, Ariza can be Miami's Jae Crowder this postseason: Stretch the floor as a shooter, and defend the other team's best wing scorer for long stretches until Butler assumes the job in crunch time. If Miami needs a stop at the end of a close game, it can throw out multiple lineups devoid of even a single defensive weak spot.
Keep in mind, the Heat might not be done dealing. They can still put together over $34 million in matching salary with the expiring contracts of Iguodala, Kelly Olynyk and Avery Bradley if they want to go after a big-name guy. Victor Oladipo, an unrestricted free agent this summer, is known to have long-term eyes on Miami. LaMarcus Aldridge has been connected in rumors. Nikola Vucevic could be a possibility from Orlando if the Heat wanted to go for broke and perhaps include a young asset like Precious Achiuwa or Tyler Herro.
Either way, the Heat are starting to peak at the right time with Butler reassuming his spot among the game's elite two-way forces. He should be an All-Defense and All-NBA candidate. He can absolutely carry a team in the postseason offensively, which is to say don't get too caught up on Miami's seeming inability to match points with the elite offensive teams. Butler can win the swing possessions, and again, this team is moving forward on the ability to defend like few teams can.
You can say Miami's run to the Finals was a fluke in the bubble. I don't think it was. They match up well with Milwaukee because Bam can legitimately serve as the eye of the defensive hurricane blowing back against Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Miami has the wing defenders to help down on Giannis' drives while still recovering to shooters. Miami was better than Boston in the bubble, and it's better than Boston now. Brooklyn is the favorite in the East, clearly. But the Heat are for real. If you believe otherwise, don't say you weren't warned.