Would the Heat have still made the NBA Finals if the season finished normally?
The answer is unknowable.
But evaluating the question is essential for determining how much recognition Miami deserves for this run and assessing the Heat’s chances against the Lakers.
No. 5 seed Miami is one of just four teams seeded so low to advance this far. The Knicks made the 1999 NBA Finals as a No. 8 seed. The Rockets made the Finals in 1981 and 1995, even winning in 1995, as No. 6 seeds.
The Heat didn’t just sneak through the Eastern Conference, though. They swept the Pacers, smoked the Bucks in five games and topped the Celtics in six games.
Miami’s 12-3 record en route to the NBA Finals was the best record by any of the four lowest-seeded teams to get this far.
Heck, Miami’s 12-3 record is better than any No. 4 seeds had en route to the Finals.
Really, only one No. 3 seed has ever topped the Heat. The 1980 76ers went 10-2 in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But Philadelphia (59-23) was the third-best regular-season team in the whole NBA, barely behind the Celtics (61-21) and Lakers (60-22). The 76ers just finished second to Boston in the Atlantic Division and therefore took the No. 3 seed behind the Central Division-champion Hawks, who finished nine games behind Philadelphia.
Miami, 44-29 in the regular season/seeding games, didn’t appear to be this type of force entering the playoffs.
So, what changed?
Reasons to believe the Heat would’ve done this in a normal year:
- The Heat are good. Even before the season went on hiatus, I considered them a championship contender. In the very bottom tier of championship contention. But a championship contender, nonetheless.
- Miami was always a versatile team with ability to play different styles offensively and defensively. That’s so useful in a deep postseason run against multiple opponents.
- The Heat always appeared to match up well with the Bucks, the Eastern Conference’s top regular-season team by a mile. Miami had a defense that could give Giannis Antetokounmpo difficulty getting to the rim and 3-point shooters to take advantage of Milwaukee’s biggest defensive vulnerability.
- Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala lifted the Heat’s level more than the team’s overall record after being acquired during the season.
Reasons to believe the Heat wouldn’t have done this in a normal year:
- A lower seed in all its playoff series, Miami played each game on a neutral court rather than being without home-court advantage.
- The bubble has had fluky-looking results.
- The Heat are mentally strong and focused in ways that help them flourish in this difficult environment. Those are useful skills in normal times, but they seem especially important now.
- The Bucks never hit their groove in the bubble. For whatever reason(s).
- Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro took leaps. Extending the seasons gave the young players more time to develop.
- Goran Dragic looks rejuvenated after the long layoff. The 34-year-old was already having a bounce-back season, but this is above and beyond.
Whatever would’ve happened with a normal finish to the season, it didn’t. The Heat absolutely deserve credit for conquering the challenge in front of them. The Lakers will be the biggest obstacle yet, but Miami can overcome that one, too.
Would the Heat have fared as well in normal times? We can only wonder.
But they’re built for this.