Miami Heat Facing Hard Questions After First-Round Sweep
The Miami Heat were a surprise package of the 2020 season with their run to the NBA Finals, where they were ultimately downed by the Los Angeles Lakers. They failed to replicate that success in 2021, however, with a first-round sweep at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks condemning them to another year without honors.
Jimmy Butler in the Bucks series:
-42 +/- (lowest on team) pic.twitter.com/fvgdqdSN2k
— StatMuse (@statmuse) May 25, 2021
The series loss makes them the only the second team this century to sweep a first-round series and then be swept the following campaign, after a 4-0 series win over the Indiana Pacers to begin the 2020 playoffs. In that Finals run, they also saw off the Bucks and Boston Celtics behind the titanic performances of Jimmy Butler – in 2021, however, Butler went cold in the playoffs, failing to register a 20-point game in the series loss to the Bucks.
Indeed, despite Butler’s excellent season beside second star and fellow max contract Bam Adebayo, the Heat looked lifeless from the first game of the postseason. Where Milwaukee strengthened in the offseason – Bleacher Report reported their trade for guard Jrue Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans – the Heat ran back largely the same unit that made the Finals. That reluctance to spend came with one eye on the 2021 postseason, where the likes of LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George portended to be available as free agents.
But, in hindsight, with most of those big names signing massive max extensions and coming off the market, the Heat’s refusal to splash out has allowed their rivals out East to leave them in the dust. The recent Adebayo extension also plays them out of contention with players like Chris Paul and Kawhi Leonard, should either choose to leave after the playoffs. With Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn on track to become restricted free agents, a pivotal offseason beckons if the Heat are to re-establish themselves in an Eastern Conference with three clear stand-out clubs.
Who Will Replace the Heat as Eastern Conference Champions?
One of those teams, the Milwaukee Bucks, finally banished their playoff demons by sweeping their 2020 conquerors. Ranked the top seed in the East two seasons running, the Bucks fell short of expectations both times, losing to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors in six games in 2019 and the Heat in five in 2020. This campaign, behind the performances of a Giannis Antetokounmpo trying to secure a third straight MVP, the Bucks have flown under the radar.
Perhaps sitting as a sleeper threat may benefit Mike Budenholzer’s team. For the first time, the Bucks are not fancied favorites out East – as of May 31 they sit at odds of +225 to win the Eastern Conference, per Betway. That compares to the -110 favorite Brooklyn Nets, who have stolen all the headlines this year since ESPN first reported the massive acquisition of James Harden in January. The other threat remains the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers (+300), who will look to make up for several years of Eastern Conference basement-dwelling by winning a ring for the NBA’s longest-suffering fanbase.
Who is the Next Big Three in Miami?
This Heat unit has struggled for identity somewhat since the departure of LeBron James back to Cleveland in 2014. With the future Hall of Famer on the roster, Miami and Erik Spoelstra made four straight NBA Finals, winning two, a minor dynasty that marked the start of the superteam era in the eyes of most analysts. The Big Three of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was so untouchable, so unbeatable, that players themselves began to scheme up how to create championship teams. What began as James, Wade and Bosh soon became the likes of the Warriors and Cavaliers teams that contested four straight Finals of their own later in the decade.
Miami have had to rely on Spoelstra’s experience to carry them through in LeBron’s absence. The current unit, headlined by Butler’s savvy 3-and-D play and Adebayo’s dominance at either end, is a top-tier team that still could not lay a glove on the NBA’s giants this season. If Spoelstra is to make a sixth NBA Finals, and a third ring, he will need more from Butler and Adebayo, who have shown flashes of absolute superstardom in the last two years. But to compete with the superteams in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, they will surely need one more big name this summer.