Miami Heat, NBA Playoffs

The elastic soul of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and the Miami Heat

The Miami Heat culture has always been about adaptation. With Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo they’ve become a smirking, energetic powerhouse.

Nobody has been more fun to watch in these playoffs than the Miami Heat. They play cohesive team ball on a scale that’s genuinely rare in the NBA, but more than that, they possess a collective badass spirit that anchors them even against a historically great regular season team such as this year’s Milwaukee Bucks. As soon as the Bucks wilted, and they wilted fast, the Heat were dogmatic, executing their game as if they were the series favorite all along. This team jumps the faint of heart with ear-to-ear smiles.

You can trace that identity right to the leaders, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. For the first time in his career, it feels like Butler actually likes his coworkers. He’s been a notoriously difficult alpha in the past, although, let’s be honest, he isn’t the only person to have ever had a problem with Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins or the GarPax managerial regime in Chicago. Still, it feels like he’s found his calling in Miami. The entire team has adopted his energy — smirking, vindictive, but also surprisingly easy to like.

Ironically, while the Heat have taken on the character of Jimmy Butler, he’s ceding the protagonist role in the offense more than he’s ever really indicated that he would before. Adebayo, who would probably have been shoehorned into a listless catch-and-dunk energy role by most other teams, runs things as much as Butler. We were fast to associate the ‘unicorn’ label with big guys who could score like guards, but what Adebayo does for Miami is so much more profound than Kristaps Porzingis being able to make a shot from 30 feet.

What do Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler do for the Miami Heat?

Adebayo doesn’t have the jumper, but he has more playmaking equity in his offense than any other center in the league other than Nikola Jokic. He’s the closest thing we’ve seen to Draymond Green since Draymond Green; he’s connective tissue. Passing, not shooting, has emerged as the pivotal trait of bigs on offense, and Adebayo is the hub of the Heat’s egalitarian approach who finds open shooters or runs hand-offs from the top of the key. His defensive bonafides fall a bit short of Prime Draymond, but just by a smidge. Draymond compensated for his height disadvantage as a rim protector with a genius-level sense of timing and positioning. Fearsome athleticism gets Adebayo close enough, and he’s probably the best switching 5 in the league right now.

In January, Butler “led” the Heat with a bizarro 8-point, 12-rebound, 7-assist performance against the Toronto Raptors, and Erik Spoelstra recast Butler in the lineage of No-Stats All-Stars after the win. “That’s what young players should learn coming into the league of what a max player actually means,” Spoelstra told reporters. “It’s not about whatever 2K numbers you can get. It’s about how your team functions and are you winning because of a player.”

Credit Butler for embracing de-emphasis. His numbers aren’t Shane Battier’s by any means, but what matters is that he isn’t defined by having the ball in his hands. He’s doing the little things, rebranding as 6-foot-7 Kyle Lowry in an Adebayo-centric offense. He’s passing and screening and trucking guys on punisher cuts to the rim, all of which constitute the particular winning habits of a basketball snob instead of the more traditional perimeter alpha. It almost doesn’t even matter that he hates taking 3s now. Then, in close late-game situations where you would just rather have the alpha, he still slips back into that role with ease.

The winner mentality is mostly a cliche in sports, but Butler is one of the outlier cases that it applies to. Forget that he’s never been past the second round of the playoffs until now. In a more visceral sense, he’s who you want to ride with. He’s the heart and soul of his team, only now he’s showing an elasticity that we’ve not seen from him before. This is how brusque pivots to endearing.

That Butler is becoming this guy in Miami is significant, because on paper, it would’ve made sense for him to take on the complementary role to guys like Embiid or Towns — again, more classic unicorn types than Adebayo — in previous stops. This has to be the Spoelstra impact, and again, we’re getting into something that is nebulous and easy to lose in cliche, but there’s a reason that Spo has lasted in Miami for 12 seasons and counting. His basketball philosophies are more inspired than most, but he isn’t a system coach in the restrictive sense. Instead, he meets his best players halfway in a symbiosis; he gets buy-in from guys like Jimmy Butler. He’s meticulous with player development and puts even career role players in a position to succeed, all the things that go into establishing culture. Honestly, give Erik Spoelstra his flowers.

Because Butler and Adebayo are so willing to toggle placement in the hierarchy, the Heat can play any which way they want. They form a defensive core that holds water even with players like Goran Dragic, Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro and Kelly Olynyk as more obvious targets, and so those players can run around looking for 3s on the other end. Dragic is playing like an All-Star again, and he falls right in line with this team’s broader identity. He’s totally irreverent. Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala are, too, and they’re better defenders. The Heat can field different lineups, complex zone defenses, players in and out of the rotation, it doesn’t matter. Here, everything clicks.

The Heat get the Boston Celtics next, and from a pure talent perspective, it doesn’t seem like the Heat could be considered favorites over Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown. But then again, they couldn’t have been considered favorites over Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, either. That’s the power of this Heat team, is that they shirk that more detached form of analysis and encourage you to go with your gut. These guys are hardasses in the way that wins you over.

Of course, with the Bucks gone, these playoffs suddenly feel wide open. Everyone can feel better about their chances when the path doesn’t run through Giannis. With that said, you would never expect the Heat to wilt, not in the way that the Bucks just did. There’s something in that, and it’s more than just earned respect. Straight up, the Heat are so easy to root for.

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