The Miami Heat’s run to the NBA Finals has been nothing short of spectacular, as they’ve needed 15 games to get past the 4, 1, and 3-seeds in the Eastern Conference. Along the way, they’ve found themselves with a flair for the dramatic, emerging as the NBA Playoffs’ most dominant fourth quarter team, pulling off some incredible comebacks and squeaking out tightly fought games by out-executing their opposition down the stretch.
They’ve done it against the Pacers, Bucks, and most recently the Celtics, but now face their biggest test in the Los Angeles Lakers. Jimmy Butler is a major reason for their fourth quarter success this postseason, as he has willed Miami to some wins — most notably Game 1 against Milwaukee. Among players who made it past the first round, only Jamal Murray averaged more points per fourth quarter in this year’s playoffs than Butler’s 6.8 (which was tied with Kawhi Leonard). Butler sees his productivity and efficiency spike in winning time, as he is capable of elevating his game to another level when needed, but he’s far from alone in that regard on the Heat.
As a team, Miami has a +17.8 net rating in the fourth quarter this postseason — 121.8 ORtg; 104.0 DRtg — which is by far the best in the NBA. They’ve been the best shooting team in fourth quarters, hitting 49 percent of their field goal attempts (35.6 percent from three) as they become a downhill, attacking the basket team in the final period. Between Butler and Goran Dragic, they have two players who excel at getting to the rim and both finishing and drawing contact, as evidenced by them having the second-most fourth quarter free throw attempts on average of any postseason team this year at 8.9 (only behind a Sixers team that got swept). They still have threats outside in Tyler Herro — who has also shown an ability to attack off the dribble — and Duncan Robinson, and an elite roll-man and offensive rebounder in Bam Adebayo, which make them capable of threatening a defense from every level of the floor.
Despite this being the first Finals run for just about everyone on the Heat, there is an unshakable confidence and total belief across the roster that they belong in these moments. They have collectively taken on the mentality of Butler, and as a result they have been able to make other teams wilt and become frantic in the closing minutes, while they have a much more even, almost knowing energy about them that they’ll make plays when needed. They’ve been able to bring out the worst in the Bucks and Celtics in those moments, two teams with more playoff experience but also with playoff demons they have been unable to put behind them.
In the Finals, they will face a Lakers team led by the indomitable will of LeBron James, who has likewise imparted his cool confidence on his team. L.A. has not been nearly as good in fourth quarters as the Heat, as they actually have a net rating of -0.2 in the final period, but in those closing minutes, they have two superstars they lean on and a defense that has shown, over and over again, that they can turn things up a notch come winning time. At this point, there can be no expectation from the Heat that they can get the Lakers to wilt as the Bucks and Celtics did simply by applying pressure and awakening the demons of their past. Instead, it will be about out-executing them as a team, which is something they are certainly capable of.
This Lakers team is sensational, but is not a juggernaut. They require the best of you at all times in order to win, and that’s a challenge few teams are ready to meet every night in a seven-game series. However, the same can be said of the Miami Heat, a team that will go through hot and cold shooting spells, but rarely lets their intensity and effort waver based on whether shots are going in. As such, this NBA Finals should be a treat, even if it’s not the matchup too many expected back in August. The winner will likely be the team that can close games out best in a battle between two of the NBA’s very best closers in James and Butler.
What has to give Miami hope is that there have been a few games this postseason in which the Lakers opponents have had openings late, but have been unable to walk through that door and shut it on James and Davis. Their ability to close games on both ends, playing lockdown defense while also being the best fourth quarter shooting team in the league, is a formidable challenge for L.A., and the numbers indicate that the Heat have simply been better in just about every facet in the fourth quarter this postseason — field goal and three-point percentage, turnovers, free throw shooting. The caveat there is that they’ve yet to go up against the Lakers defense, but they certainly have the personnel and belief to go at the Lakers with their best shot in the Finals.
We’ll find out if that’s enough in short order, and hopefully get some high drama duels in the process.