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Why the Miami Heat turned from a play-in team to a championship contender in 2023

The Miami Heat turned from a play-in team to a championship contender during the 2023 playoffs. Why have the Heat made a playoff rally?

NBA: Playoffs-New York Knicks at Miami Heat

Jimmy Butler and his Miami Heat teammates sat in the locker room following their loss against the Atlanta Hawks in the first play-in tournament game and knew their backs would be against the wall moving forward.

The Heat became the first No. 7 seed to ever lose in the play-in tournament. It was representative of the season that Miami had played up to that point as injuries and inconsistent offensive performances plagued what was thought to be a for-sure playoff team.

Luckily for the Heat, they were silently preparing for these types of moments all year. Butler and company competed in a staggering 54 clutch games and those pressure-packed regular-season games turned out to be useful.

Their backs were against the wall and no one thought they would do anything in the playoffs. That’s how they like it. It was put to the test against Chicago as they took them down for the No. 8 seed.

Next came the Milwaukee Bucks. It took five quick games, plus Butler’s inevitable emergence as a playoff superstar, and that was it. They became the sixth No. 8 seed to take down a No. 1 seed in NBA history.

The New York Knicks were next as a rivalry was renewed. Madison Square Garden turned into Kaseya Center North and over one week later, the Heat find themselves one win away from a third trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in the last four years.

So, how did the Heat become the first play-in team to ever win a playoff series? There are four pretty good reasons why Miami has transformed into a championship contender overnight when no one thought it had a chance.

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Miami Heat’s three-point shooting has come alive at the right time

NBA: Playoffs-New York Knicks at Miami Heat
May 6, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; Miami Heat guard Max Strus (31) celebrates scoring against the New York Knicks during the first quarter of game three of the 2023 NBA playoffs at Kaseya Center. Mandatory Credit: Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports

The Heat ended the regular season with very unappealing numbers on the offensive end of the floor. Most notably, Miami was dead last in the NBA when it came to points per game, which was below the Detroit Pistons by almost one full point.

It is easy to tell where this is going for Miami. The team had the fourth-worst three-point shooting percentage despite having the 10th-most three-point attempts in the NBA. Those are staggering numbers for an offense that had the best shooting from beyond the arc last season.

The shooting stroke that had carried Miami’s offense simply vanished. That was up until the beginning of the NBA playoffs against the Bucks. It represented the turning point and one of the key reasons why the organization is still vying for an NBA Finals trophy this year.

The Heat have the third-best three-point shooting percentage while making 14.1 triples through nine playoff games. Miami has eight players shooting 36% or better from beyond the arc with no one below that consistently attempts that type of shot.

It is a surprising development that has happened at the right time. The Heat’s offense needs to keep riding their hot hands because if they do put the Knicks out of their misery, another date with the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers is up next.

The team won’t beat itself if it makes open shots and continues to have a smooth flow on the offensive end. This is partially due to the emergence of one important player that has truly given the Heat more energy on and off the court.

Related: Miami Heat rebound in Game 3: Top takeaways from win over Knicks

Kevin Love’s veteran presence has given the Miami Heat more energy

NBA: Playoffs-New York Knicks at Miami Heat
May 8, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; Miami Heat forward Kevin Love (42) passes the basketball as New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) defends in the third quarter during game four of the 2023 NBA playoffs at Kaseya Center. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Love was riding the bench with the Cleveland Cavaliers and simply wanted to prove that he still had elite basketball left in the tank. That is why Love and Cleveland worked on a buyout following the NBA Trade Deadline in February.

It didn’t take long for the championship-winning forward to make his decision as he took his talents to South Beach to be a part of the Heat Culture. The success of Miami’s past was a major reason behind his decision and it has paid off.

Love has been a much-needed burst of energy in the locker room and he is beloved by all of the Heat’s players. On the court, he is still playing great basketball by taking charges and open three-point shots at a high rate.

This doesn’t even include Love’s mind-blowing full-court passes which have been on the mark almost every time. These plays have given the Heat significant momentum and proven why Love deserves every single penny in his contract.

Many were angry that Miami did not acquire a player at the trade deadline and it was understandable why that was the case. The Heat clearly needed an upgrade and despite that fact, they were one of three teams to remain quiet and do nothing.

The organization clearly believed in its players and its patience is proving itself right now. In fact, there is another Heat player that has been letting his play do the talking despite public outcry for him to be traded to another team.

Related: Small skirmish breaks out in Game 3 of New York Knicks vs. Miami Heat

Miami Heat’s bench has a certified leader with Kyle Lowry

NBA: Playoffs-Miami Heat at New York Knicks
May 2, 2023; New York, New York, USA; Miami Heat guard Kyle Lowry (7) reacts during the third quarter of game two of the 2023 NBA Eastern Conference semifinal playoffs against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Lowry found himself in the midst of trade rumors in February and it was a quick fall from the end of last season when the Heat lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics. Lowry was undeniably disappointed as those moments are the ones he is pursuing at this point in his career.

The 37-year-old point guard started his second season with the Heat on an OK note. It was nothing special but it quickly became ugly. Lowry regressed each month leading up to the NBA Trade Deadline and then suffered a knee injury that kept him out for a while.

For someone who once looked like Miami’s saving grace on offense, he already looked like a shell of his former shelf. That was until Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra made the decision to bring Lowry off the bench. Everything changed.

Lowry became the certified leader of the second unit and he looked like a new player. The point guard shot the ball much better and provided life to a bench that truly needed the help. Fast forward to Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals and that point was proven even more.

With a hobbled Butler being irrelevant on offense, Lowry simply took over and made play after play for a final stat line of 18 points, five rebounds, six assists, and four blocks. This doesn’t even include what can’t be seen on the box score with his winning plays on both ends of the floor.

If not for Lowry’s emergence as a bench threat, the Heat would not be in this spot. Many doubted that he would make an impact on the Heat again but those doubts have been thrown away. Now, his biggest supporter can say both of them are proving why they are forces in the postseason.

Related: Jimmy Butler sets Miami Heat franchise playoff scoring record with 56 points

Jimmy Butler’s predictable playoff rise to superstar status for the Miami Heat

NBA: Playoffs-New York Knicks at Miami Heat
May 8, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) dribbles the basketball as New York Knicks guard Trevor Keels (3) defends in the third quarter during game four of the 2023 NBA playoffs at Kaseya Center. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Butler, who was once viewed as a problem in the locker room, has earned the full trust of every player on the Heat roster. Despite his struggles in the middle of the regular season, everyone in the locker room knew that it was OK.

The playoffs are a different animal. Over the last four seasons, Butler has normally not been at his peak in January and February but once the playoffs start, he elevates to an insanely high level of basketball.

This was on full display against the Bucks. The superstar forward tore apart Jrue Holiday, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Brook Lopez. No one could stop him. Butler had a historic 56-point performance in Game 4 and averaged 37.6 points during the series.

It was not surprising to those in the locker room and it is because Butler is a 16-game player. The games that matter most are the ones where Butler shines the brightest. It is why the No. 8 seeded Heat is playing like a No. 1 or 2 seed despite the lack of attention.

Miami is oozing confidence and it is because of Butler’s play. He is one of the greatest playoff risers of the current generation and he is showing no signs of slowing down. Sure, the Heat could always lose to a more talented Celtics or 76ers team but they are defying all odds.

This is a No. 8 seed. The Heat shouldn’t be taking 3-1 series leads against the No. 1 and No. 5 seeds. There is plenty to be proud about from Miami’s perspective but the job is not done yet. The Heat want a championship and it’s hard to bet against them at this point.

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