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Why Heat remain threat to reach NBA Finals, have made regular season irrelevant

Miami is in a bad slump but this is what the Heat have been during the Jimmy Butler era.

Miami Heat v New York Knicks
Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat looks on against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on January 27, 2024 in New York City.
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Miami Heat are hoping to get back to the NBA Finals for the third time in five seasons in 2023-24, and that goal might not be looking too good at the moment. The Heat are on a seven-game losing streak, which is their longest setback since they dropped 15 games during the 2007-08. The Heat won just 15 games that season.

However, this is nothing new for Erik Spoelstra’s bunch. They have largely been this team since Jimmy Butler joined the franchise and outside of winning the title, things have worked out. The Heat have made the Finals twice and the conference finals one other time. Miami even made it last year as the No. 8 seed despite being two minutes away from being bounced out of the play-in tournament. This team knows the regular season doesn’t matter.

Here’s a look at Miami’s offensive and defensive rating for each of the last four regular seasons, along with their league rank.

2019-20: 111.9 offensive rating (7th), 109.3 defensive rating (12th), 7th in net rating
2020-21: 110.6 (18th), 110.7 (10th), 17th in net rating
2021-22: 113 (12th), 108.4 (4th), 6th in net rating
2022-23: 112.3 (25th), 112.8 (9th), 21st in net rating

As you can see, Miami hasn’t exactly been the most dominant team in the league despite making deep playoff runs. Defense has been this team’s calling card, which has largely been in the top 10 during Butler’s run. Here’s a look at the same metrics for Miami in each of the team’s respective postseason runs.

2019-20: 112.7 offensive rating, 110.8 defensive rating, lost in Finals
2020-21: 95.4, 115, swept in first round
2021-22: 110.7, 107, lost in seven-game conference finals series
2022-23: 113.8, 111.9, lost in Finals

Outside of the shocking offensive drop in the 2020-21 sweep at the hands of the eventual champion Bucks, the Heat have held form even in the playoffs. They aren’t performing any better when it comes to the advanced metrics, although the results have been much better. The Heat know they can turn it on when the games really matter, and they also know the games don’t really matter right now.

In the 2019-20 season, the No. 9 and No. 10 seeds in the East would’ve had 25-47 and 23-42 records. The NBA introduced the play-in tournament the following year, and here’s a look at the records for the No. 9 and No. 10 seeds in the East for those respective seasons.

2020-21: No. 9 seed 34-38, No. 10 seed 33-39
2021-22: 44-38, 43-39
2022-23: 41-41, 40-42

At 24-23, the Heat are still 4.5 games out from the No. 10 seed sitting in seventh place in the East as of Tuesday. Even though this type of losing streak is not where they want to be, they have had some close calls. They caught a Raptors team motivated by the Pascal Siakam trade to start this skid, and have faced the red-hot Celtics, Knicks and Suns as well.

The Heat have three games left against the Wizards and Pistons, two games with the Raptors and Trail Blazers, and one game with San Antonio. Those are 11 games they can easily win but perhaps the most telling stretch will be a five-game set featuring the Celtics, Bucks, 76ers, Pelicans and Kings, with the last four games being on the road. The Heat have beat Boston, Milwaukee and Philadelphia in the postseason during the last four years, and they understand these are the squads they’ll have to go through again to reach the Finals.

To be clear, there are still problems for Spoelstra to address. Despite having three players average 20+ points per game, the Heat are 22nd in offensive rating. Tyler Herro has not made up for the absences of Max Strus and Gabe Vincent, and new acquisition Terry Rozier is not up to speed yet. Caleb Martin hasn’t been able to build on his impressive postseason run last season, although he did miss some time. The Heat aren’t as connected defensively as they’ve been in prior seasons, but they do have some time to figure things out.

The Heat know they can be somewhat delicate in the regular season, especially since their key players have all missed time with injuries. They are still well within the bounds of being in the play-in/playoff mix, and they know that’s all they need to remain a Finals threat.