MIAMI – It’s hard to count out the Miami Heat.
Every time they’ve been dismissed, they’ve dramatically resuscitated themselves. Jimmy Butler will put up a masterpiece. Bam Adebayo will turn in a stunning two-way performance. Or one of the team’s bevvy of undrafted players will make millions of people learn his name.
But the Heat’s unlikely season has likely hit its wall.
After falling to the Denver Nuggets in Friday’s Game 4 of the Finals, 108-95, the Heat now trail the series 3-1. Only one team in NBA history has recovered from such a hole in the championship round, the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers led by LeBron James.
This season has been spectacular for the Heat, who have overcome overwhelming odds at every turn. It has pretty much become their brand: The more they’ve been left for dead, the brighter they’ve shined.
But now they’re at the edge of the biggest precipice they’ve faced, with a bigger and stronger Nuggets team inching them closer to the edge.
“I told the guys, ‘Feel whatever you want to feel tonight, it’s fine,'” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Friday. “You probably shouldn’t sleep tonight any amount of time. I don’t think anybody will.
“…We’ve done everything the hard way. And that’s the way it’s going to have to be done right now, again. All we are going to focus on is getting this thing back to the 305 [Miami’s area code]. Get this thing back to Miami. And things can shift very quickly.”
This has been a postseason run filled with surprises. After losing a play-in game to Atlanta, the Heat clawed their way into the playoffs by beating Chicago in their second play-in game. They then stunned the NBA world in the first round by beating the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in five games. And after getting past the New York Knicks in the second round, they stormed to a 3-0 lead over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, eventually beating them in Game 7.
In so doing, the Heat became just the second eighth seed to reach the NBA Finals.
For Butler, this is just the team’s latest challenge – and he plans to face this one the same way he’s led the Heat past all of their other ones.
“I think we really do believe in one another and ourselves as individuals,” said Butler, who had 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists on Friday. “We’ve done some hard things all year long in this playoff run as well. And now it’s like the hardest of the hard. But like we always say, you know, the things that you want is on the other side of hard is.”
In a sense, the Heat seem to be built for this moment.
Not only has the team overcome so many tough situations, but many of the most important members of the organization have their own underdog story.
Spoelstra went from being the team’s video coordinator to becoming a two-time championship coach. Jimmy Butler went from being the 30th overall pick in the NBA Draft to becoming a six-time All-Star and a postseason legend. Adebayo went from being considered one-dimensional to becoming one of the top two-way players in the game. And the Heat have come this far with nine undrafted players, more than any team in the league.
“We don’t have no quit,” Butler said. “We are going to continually fight,”
The Heat showed that mentality in Game 4. Trailing by as much as 17 points, they cut their deficit to five in the fourth quarter. But the Nuggets were ultimately too deep and their defense around the 3-point line was too strong.
When asked what the message was among the players following the game, Adebayo described a downtrodden yet hopeful locker room.
“A lot of people pissed off,” said Adebayo, who finished with 20 points, 11 rebounds and seven turnovers. “But biggest thing is, first to four [wins]. That’s the biggest thing, first to four. We take it one game at a time. And we figure this thing out.”
Regardless of how this unfolds, the Heat’s season should undoubtedly be considered a success.
Moments such as Butler’s 56-point performance against the Bucks in Game 4 will become playoff lore. Adebayo took his offensive game to another level this season, while being one of the league’s top defenders. Guys like Caleb Martin, Max Strus and Gabe Vincent made names for themselves. And the Heat reached the ultimate stage in basketball despite being without Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo for the majority of the playoffs.
The Heat weren’t supposed to be here. But after dropping both games at home against the Nuggets, they might’ve finally dug a hole that’s too deep even for them to overcome.
But of course, they don’t see it that way.
“We are going into Monday and do what we said we were going to do this entire time and win,” Butler said. “We have to. We have no other choice. Otherwise, we did all this for no reason.”
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
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