The message all season from the Miami Heat veterans to the youngsters on the roster has been pointed and consistent.
Every step taken, every triumph and stumble, all that transpired from the start of training camp to the season shutdown in early March to the restart of the regular season last month, it was all preparation for a moment like the one presented to the Heat on Monday.
So it should come as no surprise that Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn all had their moments helping deliver the Heat’s first-round sweep of the Indiana Pacers.
Adebayo played huge all four games, even when his raw numbers didn’t jump off the stat sheet. Particularly on nights like this one, where his 14 points, season-high-tying 19 rebounds and six assists loomed extra large with fellow Heat All-Star Jimmy Butler limited by a sore left shoulder.
Robinson triggered the franchise playoff-record three-point barrage in Game 2, going 7-for-8 from deep to tie Mike Miller’s franchise record on his way to a playoff career-high 24 points.
Herro scored a combined 36 points in Games 3 and 4, coming up with some of the biggest plays on both ends of the floor during crunch time of Monday’s 99-87 series clincher. He led a bench brigade that outscored the Heat starters at half-time, 25-23, and the Pacers’ bench, 41-3, on the night.
Nunn, a finalist for Kia Rookie of the Year, finally made his playoff debut on Monday night, after dealing with a positive test for the coronavirus that interrupted his preparation for the playoffs as the season restarted on the NBA campus in Orlando.
The Heat simply wouldn’t be headed to the conference semi-finals, likely to face the No 1 seed Milwaukee Bucks (who lead the Orlando Magic, 3-1), without the contributions of a young core group that has played beyond its collective years.
« It’s fun, » Butler said. « We love when other guys are successful. We hype them up and tell them to keep attacking, if you’re getting stops keep getting stops. That’s the way basketball should be played. You should have fun, you should enjoy the game. And you can see that in how we play. We share the ball, we’re excited as I don’t know what when somebody hits a three or DJ (reigning NBA Slam Dunk champion Derrick Jones Jr) gets a big dunk or somebody takes a charge. It’s so fun to play that way and I’m happy we continue to play that way. »
Butler was on the bench during a fourth-quarter stretch when the Pacers fired everything they had to try to keep the series alive. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra went with veterans Goran Dragic, Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder working in concert with Adebayo and Herro to fend off the threat and give Butler that extra rest.
Dragic, starting in place of Nunn, scored a team-high 23 points, his fourth straight 20-point game in the series. Iguodala, the 2015 Finals MVP acquired at the trade deadline, played every fourth-quarter minute of the series. Crowder came over in the deal with Iguodala from Memphis, but watching them operate you wouldn’t know that they haven’t been with this team from the start.
« To me, that’s normal, » Butler said of the Heat’s next-man-up approach. « It may catch some people by surprise but I see this every single day in practice. When we don’t have practice and these guys go to the gym, all year long and however many games we play. They are always taking and making big shots and in position on defense, and just playing hard, getting on the floor for loose balls.
« You know, Tyler got like three offensive rebounds in a row or something like that. That’s winning basketball. And we preach that to him every single day. ‘Spo’ is always talking about ‘ball in the air, ball on the floor.’ That’s championship habits, championship plays. Obviously, the kid can put the ball in the basket, but as long as everybody is playing hard, you can’t help but to be happy for them. »
Spoelstra is pleased that his youngsters have continued to grow and earn their stripes, understanding exactly what awaits them the deeper this team plays into these playoffs.
It’s one thing for Butler, Dragic, Iguodala and Udonis Haslem to tell them about what to expect, but even more important to watch them play through those moments and do it at a high level.Adebayo’s monster effort, which included six of the Heat’s 17 offensive rebounds, and Herro’s shot-making and defensive work on Pacers All-Star Victor Oladipo in the final minutes, it all resonated with Spoelstra now that the Heat can move on to the next challenge.
« [Bam] was so big on the glass with six offensive rebounds, » Spoelstra said. « And everything else on the defensive end, switching on to their guards, protecting at the rim if somebody got beat off the dribble. Trapping when necessary and then finishing off our defense with great pursuit of the ball. But that’s who Bam is. He is a winner and I’m so glad he is able to experience like everybody else, a first-round win where he had a major impact, I don’t care what the stats said. »
Butler’s sore shoulder forced Herro down the stretch Monday, though it was really just a continuation of his 20-point burst in Game 3.
« We need him, » Spoelstra said. « I don’t think we have it designed in our offensive system for him to be an offensive rebounder. But he went after the ball. Those were loose balls and he put his nose on it. He has a knack for being around the ball. But more importantly, he is improving defensively, he is learning what playoff basketball is all about, the intensity level anyhow every single match-up and every single possession matters, and that offensively he’s a serious weapon for us. He can play off the ball for us, which is important, but he can also have the ball in his hands and make plays for our team, and that’s only getting better. »
The Heat will need better, from the entire roster, against this Bucks team. Milwaukee brings a completely different level of competition than the game, but wounded Pacers – notably missing their best player, All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis (foot injury) – could muster.
« I got until midnight to enjoy this, » Adebayo said of the first playoff series win of his career. « And then it’s back to business in the morning. »
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