Propelled to NBA Finals by Pat Riley's Heat Culture, Miami stand between victory and misery

Not many would have predicted the Miami Heat making it to the NBA Finals. How did they do it? Heat Culture.

Amit Kamath September 29, 2020 11:15:58 IST
Propelled to NBA Finals by Pat Riley's Heat Culture, Miami stand between victory and misery

Miami Heat players celebrate their NBA Conference Final win over the Boston Celtics. AP Photo

In a year where nothing bears any resemblance to normalcy, is it really that surprising that the Miami Heat are in the NBA Finals?

When the season started ― or even when it restarted in the bubble in Orlando ― the Heat were not on top of most people’s predictions for an Eastern Conference finalist. But here they are, clambering into the NBA Finals on top of the heap of bodies they’ve vanquished in the East, from the gritty Indiana Pacers, to the heavyweights Milwaukee Bucks, to the storied Boston Celtics with a well-coached squad.

“Teams like this are unique. A bunch of guys that have been overlooked in a lot of ways… A lot of guys in our locker room have been told that they are less than,” coach Erik Spoelstra, who started life with the Heat as a video coordinator before being elevated to the coach’s position in 2008, said during his media availability on Monday.

In an era of sabermetrics, Heat ― led by their indomitable president, Pat Riley ― have found a group of players who did not rank high on the statistical charts in their developing years, but have always had that intangible quality you cannot measure: Heart.

“We believe in guys like that. That’s part of our philosophy, part of our culture. Guys that are extremely motivated, driven, have a passion for this game, have a passion for competition, and have a willingness to fight for it. That’s our fabric,” Spoelstra said two weeks ago.

That explains why 11 teams passed on Tyler Herro, who has turned into a three-point shooting phenom in the bubble, in the 2019 NBA Draft before Miami picked him. And why 13 teams passed on Bam Adebayo before Miami got him as the 14th pick in the Draft in 2017. And why Duncan Robinson, another lights-out three-point shooter, played for a Division III college then went undrafted in 2018. Only after proving himself in the G-League did he make the cut in the NBA.

“We been underdogs our entire life, everybody up here got a chip on their shoulder (sic),” tweeted Jimmy Butler after the Game 6 win on Monday.

Butler, the franchise’s superstar, has played for Chicago Bulls, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Philadelphia 76ers, but, in his first year of signing up with the Heat, will play in the NBA Finals for the first time in his career. At the first three franchises, he was perceived as a player who ‘brought baggage’ along with him ― NBA-speak for not being a team player ― but at the Heat, he’s been hailed as a team man.

“So much of this league is just about alignment. Jimmy Butler embodies qualities of professionalism, accountability, and being reliable. He leads. He doesn’t have to make any apologies for who he is. He impacts winning,” said Spoelstra on Monday.

So what was the quality that the Miami Heat saw in these players when others did not? And how did they make it to the NBA Finals this season, when not many expected them to?

The answer in both cases could be summed up with two words ― words that sound like a marketing catchphrase coined by an ad guru but in reality have been the philosophy that has ruled the franchise for 25 years now: Heat Culture.

Miami are a franchise that likes to do things a little differently. Former players tell tales of being in the best shape of their lives while playing for Miami. Andre Iguodala will tell you of training sessions where mouth guards and knee pads were mandatory, and sometimes the air conditioning would be switched off. Shane Battier will talk about the time he was told to tuck in his jersey before practice sessions. Shaquille O’Neal will tell you of the time the Heat rallied back from 0-2 down to a 3-2 lead over the Dallas Mavericks in 2006 and before they flew to Dallas for Game 6, Riley, then the coach of the franchise, ordered each player to carry a suit and a tie with them because there “would be no Game 7”. Many current players of the Heat reportedly stayed back in Miami during the pandemic so that they could keep training, even as players from other franchises went home and spent time with family.

Propelled to NBA Finals by Pat Rileys Heat Culture Miami stand between victory and misery

Pat Riley, president of the Miami Heat, watches Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final. AP Photo

Since landing at Miami 25 years ago, Riley, the high priest of Heat Culture, has instilled a blue-collar, hard-hat work ethic into the DNA of the franchise. He even summed up his philosophy in a single line in an old interview: “There’s winning. And there’s misery.”

The team believes in having the best-conditioned and the hardest-working players.

“You would rather play NBA games than be in practice (sessions),” Bruce Bowen, who had a brief stint with the Heat before he moved to the San Antonio Spurs and won three NBA Championships with them, told journalists from India recently.

“Practice games would get so competitive that you would look forward to playing against someone else. That’s culture. It has a lot to do with leadership, and what’s their vision. Pat Riley, from Day 1, understood that in order to have success at this level, you must work hard. That’s been a constant with Heat. There’s an understanding that this is the only way we can be successful.”

Bowen points to other organisations, where a change in coaching personnel or in the front office has led to a drop in fortunes of the team.

“Look at Detroit Pistons when they won the NBA Championships in 2003-04 (and reached the Finals in 2004-05). The culture has changed there since because there’s been a shift in management with the exit of Joe Dumars, who was a staple of that organisation. This is just an example of how when you have a change in management the culture changes as well.”

The baton for Heat Culture though has been passed along over the years from Riley to Stan van Gundy to Spoelstra. Along the way, there have been five trips to the NBA Finals, leading to three titles.

The first of those titles came in 2005-06 thanks to superstars like O’Neal, Dwyane Wade, and Alonzo Mourning.

The remaining two came thanks to The Heatles, as LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Wade liked to call themselves. It’s perhaps fitting that a decade after James changed the history of the Heat by “taking his talents to South Beach” ― a move that led Miami to four NBA Finals and two titles ― it will be James-led LA Lakers that get to brawl with the Heat with the title on the line.

The current Miami Heat side, though, is cut from a slightly different cloth than the previous versions that have been in the NBA Finals.

Butler is the only bonafide superstar of this team. Unlike the party the franchise threw to announce The Heatles ― with a brass band, smoke machines, and a stage with a ramp into the crowd ― the current squad was assembled by taking chances on men who embodied Heat Culture. And by men like Butler taking a chance on them, without a proven star-cast that would have guaranteed him immediate success. On Monday, Spoelstra revealed that Butler had agreed to join the Heat without even hearing their pitch to him completely.

“Butler is not a LeBron James-type of superstar,” said Bowen. “But he’s the kind of star that if you put the right pieces around him, he stands out even more. He’s just a different type of star. He can finish games, he defends, he fits with what the Heat are trying to do as far as the culture is concerned.”

Spoelstra, who was the coach of The Heatles as well, was asked to compare the two versions of the franchise.

He cut short the question.

“It’d be like trying to compare kids,” he said. “I feel like I’m a steward of this culture. We’ve built many different teams that looked a lot different. The same goal, but many different personalities, make-ups, and how we put together the teams.”

The Lakers, where Riley won his first titles as a coach, come calling on Thursday. Any other underdog team would have left the bubble happy just to have made the showpiece clash. But not the Heat. As Riley likes to say, “There’s winning. And there’s misery.”

No middle ground.

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