Jimmy Butler leaves game with stiff ankle, Heat hold on to beat Pelicans

New Orleans Pelicans v Miami Heat
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The Miami Heat came out on Christmas with a chip on their shoulder.

All preseason long they heard pundits rank them third or lower in the East, saying their trip to the Finals was a one-off, an odd situation where they thrived. It was not a fluke, but there are doubts they could repeat their success.

Miami looked like a team with Finals potential on Christmas Day, handling New Orleans comfortably 111-98.

Jimmy Butler had to leave the game at halftime with ankle stiffness (he was questionable heading into Christmas but gave it a go), but the Heat were “next man up” ready and didn’t miss a beat.

Miami played strong defense — despite Zion Williamson putting up 32 points — and shredded the defense new Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy focused so much on in the preseason. The Pelicans’ defense is improved, but there’s much more work to do. For example, know your personnel — you have to rotate to Duncan Robinson on the perimeter. New Orleans was often slow on that and the result got ugly fast for them.

Robinson finished with 23 points and tied the Christmas Day record with seven made threes on the day (8-of-14 shooting overall). The Pelicans did a better job in the second half slowing the Robinson dribble handoff with Bam Adebayo, but it was all too little too late. Robinson got comfortable with his shot and it was all over.

Miami wanted to make a statement in the first game of Christmas Day.

“Last year was a huge learning experience, not only for myself but for really this whole group. We’re just trying to build on it.” Robinson said in his walk-off interview on ESPN. “We were disappointed with how we came out in game one.”

Zion showed his insane athletic gifts and put up 32 despite Adebayo checking him for points. He was also -13 for the game because Miami went at Zion on offense, dragging him into pick and rolls, where he was often slow to recover after a hedge/show. Miami makes teams pay with a three when that happens.

The Heat had a strong game from Goran Dragic off the bench, where he scored 18 points and set up teammates — particularly rookie Precious Achiuwa, who scored 11 on 5-of-7 shooting for the game.

The top of the East will be a crowded spot this season — Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Boston, maybe Philadephia — but Miami would like to remind everyone they went to the Finals a year ago, and they are poised to make a return. The Heat are not on a second tier in the East this season.