Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat are still figuring things out. Considering the early returns and their vaunted “Heat Culture,” that’s pretty scary for the rest of the East.
Heading into a matchup with the Phoenix Suns Thursday night, it was impossible not to see the similarities between the pleasant surprise of Western Conference and the Miami Heat, the pleasant surprise of the East. Both teams were 5-2, both had made quality opponents look mortal and both appear obsessed with their culture.
However, in the Suns’ case, they’re trying to change course from their ugly recent history, laying the groundwork for a new culture. It wasn’t surprising to hear head coach Monty Williams admit “Heat Culture” is something he looks to as an example.
“I have great respect for how they do it,” Williams said. “They talk about their DNA…they have it, we don’t. We’re trying to build that. I’m sure they have core values that they hold onto, there’s certain guys that they bring in. Everybody can’t play for the Heat, and that’s pretty cool.”
That was apparent in the actual game, as the upstart Suns were simply outplayed by a similar Heat squad. Phoenix’s brand of physical defense, its improved depth, its impressive range of NBA-caliber players — all of those qualities were there on Miami’s side of the floor, and they proved to be superior.
Through the Heat’s first seven games, it was a collective team effort that got them off to such an impressive start. As Bam Adebayo noted, defenses were forced to pick their poison on a near nightly basis.
“I feel like it’s…equal opportunity,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve had the same leading scorer every game except for probably twice out of what, eight games? And just doing that, you never know who’s gonna have a good night.”
As has been the case the last few years, a collection of ball-handlers, shooters and rim-running bigs who all knew their roles are joining forces to get the job done for Miami.
However, that’s rarely the blueprint for winning titles. As Pat Riley knows better than anyone thanks to one of the most memorable Big 3s in NBA history, it takes superstars to win titles, which has remained Miami’s goal through all the highs and lows of the last decade.
That’s where Jimmy Butler came into the equation … only the first few games served as more of a feeling-out process than anything. Through his first four appearances in a Heat jersey, Butler had averaged a mere 15.0 points per game. He was struggling from the field, shooting 35.4 percent from the field and 23.1 percent from 3-point range, but he was mostly opting for a more passive role centered around playmaking (6.5 assists per game) and defense.
At that point, it was easy to grow concerned that his time in crowded Big 3s with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers had rubbed off on him the wrong way. The Heat were supposed to be his team, a collection of complementary talent that would aid him, but ultimately only go as far as Jimmy Buckets carried them.
The world got a glimpse of that picture in the first half Thursday night, when Butler exploded for 30 first-half points on the Suns, going 9-for-10 from the floor and a perfect 10-for-10 from the foul line.
“I don’t know, but I like that guy,” head coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It was good to get introduced to him tonight. That guy’s special. He really is. He set the tone for the game obviously in that first half and we just played off of his offensive force.”
Spo noted that it wasn’t just his scoring though, marveling at Butler’s facilitation and ability to guard Devin Booker (well, when Tyler Herro was allowing him to, at least) without getting tired. On a night without Justise Winslow and Dion Waiters, Miami’s commendable depth — one of its trademark strengths — was thinner than usual.
Apparently that’s why Spoelstra had a conversation with Butler before the game about being more assertive. Between that and his teammates encouraging him to take more shots, Butler’s 34-point, five-rebound, four-assist outing felt like an expected breath of fresh air.
It’s still a work-in-progress, of course. Adebayo joked about one sequence in the first half, where Butler was already on fire and the third-year center told his new teammate not to pass him the ball. He offered to set a screen, but after that, he told Butler he’d be on his own to continue cooking.
“There was like 11 seconds on the shot clock and I was in the short corner, and he was looking at me to come set a screen and I’m like, ‘You got 25! What? You ain’t gonna just go at him?’” he said, laughing. “But that shows the type of person he is. He wants everybody to get involved. He doesn’t just wanna be a one-man show, he wants it to be a team thing.”
Butler didn’t do it alone on Thursday either. As has been the case all season, someone from Miami’s deep rotation stepped up. This time it was Goran Dragic, torching his former city with a carefree verve not seen since Drogon haphazardly decided to level King’s Landing. The Dragon finished with 25 points on 5-of-7 shooting from deep, but it was his 10 points in the final 2:06 of the third quarter that busted the game wide open.
Adebayo, meanwhile, finished his night with 15 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and five steals — another kind of well-rounded, supplementary performance that Butler seems to relish in his new surroundings.
“These guys give me all the confidence in the world to go out there and be aggressive,” Butler said. “We’ve got so many guys that can do that on any certain night, which makes me happy. I like when we have balanced scoring nights. I like it whenever Bam [Adebayo] can score 30 or [Kendrick] Nunn can get 50, whatever it is, we’ve just got to win. At the end of the day, that’s what it is all about and I think every guy around this locker room, everybody in this organization, that’s why we do what we do.”
While Butler was expected to make this team his own, that has never been the Miami Heat way, nor is it the way Butler wants it. He caught flak for leaving a playoff team in Minnesota because he wanted to win, and that criticism amplified when he left the Sixers, one of the top teams in the East, to be the star of his own team in South Beach. But for Butler, it seems like he’d prefer to operate somewhere in the middle of those two extremes of carrying a team vs. being on a super-team where his game can’t truly shine.
“I take it day-by-day, game-by-game, but I think that was maybe a little key before the game,” Butler said. “Everybody was telling me to keep being aggressive, to keep shooting. I think as long as my teammates, my coaches want me to be that way, maybe it’s okay to play that way every once in a while. But I like to pass the ball.”
That selflessness has been a great fit for Spoelstra’s system and this particular roster so far. Not only are the Heat 6-2, tied for the second-best record in the East, but they also sport the NBA’s third-best point differential (+8.3).
Their success stems from the defensive end, which has long been a core tenet of Heat Culture, as they rank:
- 3rd in steals (10.1 per game)
- 3rd in blocks (6.5 per game)
- 4th in defensive rating (100.7)
- 4th in rebounding percentage (52.3 percent)
- 6th in points off turnovers (20.1 per game)
The offensive end, however, is where the Heat are surprising. Their assist percentage of 63.7 ranks third in the association, and Butler leads the team with 6.0 dimes per game. All that ball movement has led to a lot of turnovers (19.0 per game, 29th in the NBA), but also a lot of quality looks from 3, which helps explain why Miami leads the league in 3-point percentage (40.5 percent).
“The ball finds energy, so just moving without the ball,” Adebayo explained.
Eight games is a small sample size, and Butler has only suited up for five of those contests, but it’s telling the Heat have six players averaging at least 13.0 points per game, plus three more putting up at least 7.0 points a night. It took a 34-point demolition of Phoenix’s defense for Butler to even ascend to the position of the team’s leading scorer, as he’s averaging only 18.8 points a night.
“That was Playoff Jimmy,” Goran Dragic said with a big smile. “He was unbelievable. I even asked for more heat before the game, so it was unbelievable.”
And therein lies the rub: The Heat are going to upend a lot of talented teams thanks to the good fortune of having 5-8 guys who are all capable of going off any given night. But come April, striking the right balance between equal contributions and knowing when to let “Playoff Jimmy” take over could determine Miami’s true ceiling.
This is where the rite of passage involved with Heat Culture might pay dividends. That term has been described in many different ways. It’s been used to refer to Riley’s refusal to tank, always aiming to be competitive. It’s often described the team’s rigorous practice and conditioning habits, like when Riley promised to get Dion Waiters into “world-class shape” or when Miami held James Johnson out for not passing his conditioning test in training camp.
However, Adebayo provided a sneak peak into the core tenets that really make up Heat Culture after Thursday’s game. Though he couldn’t remember them all off the top of his head, he said there are about eight, mentioning principles like being the “most professional,” “most disciplined,” “most physical” and “most disliked.”
“It’s like a list and if you can look yourself in the mirror and say ‘I check all these boxes,’ then you fit in and you start to feel that from the jump,” he explained. “It starts in pickup [in the summer]. You start to feel how guys really can exist in this franchise, and all of us went through that process. All of us have been tested. I got tested my rookie year, Jimmy got tested when he got here. We all fit in and at the end of the day, we’re all pure about it.”
This creed, which Adebayo referred to as a “religion,” “philosophy” and “part of the atmosphere” in Miami, is also about sacrifice for the good of the team. There might not be a better example of that than Dragic’s sacrifice of coming off the bench behind undrafted rookie Kendrick Nunn.
Spoelstra said he hasn’t forgotten that Dragic is an All-Star, and that it isn’t easy to do accept that role, even for a professional, nice guy like him.
“It was a discussion that we had and it was with the big picture in mind, and he’s embraced it,” Spo said. “It’s a great luxury for us to bring an All-Star talent like him, in his prime still, off the bench. I don’t take that for granted and we make sure that the team doesn’t take that for granted. These young guys that are playing, and we have an All-Star, a proven, highly decorated player, a winner in this league doing that — that’s a great sacrifice. That’s a great example for the young guys on our team.”
It’s also reveals the exact type of team-wide buy-in Jimmy Butler has been searching for all this time. HIs blow-up in Minnesota is well-documented, but at its core, that unforgettable incident represented his unwavering commitment to feeding the competitive fire. For all their God-given talent, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins didn’t always bring that to the table.
In Philly, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and J.J. Redick represented the most talent he had ever played with, but almost too much sacrifice was required to make it work, to the potential detriment of both Butler and the team.
In Miami, that vaunted Heat Culture has initiated its newest disciple, someone who was built for this type of rigorous work ethic, unrelenting desire to compete and unified commitment to defense, sacrifice and putting the team first.
The Heat are still figuring out when to emphasize balanced contributions and when to let Jimmy Butler take over, but they’re off to a roaring start during this period of experimentation, which could be terrifying for the rest of the league if they figure it out. Luckily, they’ve got the perfect credo to serve as their guiding light.
“Everybody here is about it, everybody knows about the Heat Culture in the NBA,” Adebayo said. “But when you get here, you’ve gotta really be built for it, and I think everybody in this locker room is.”