Tramel: Heat takes advantage of bubble to make NBA history
When the NBA Playoffs began in the Orlando bubble, many of us speculated that this might be a postseason ripe for a Cinderella story. With no homecourt advantage, and the peculiarity of a 4½-month break from basketball before restarting the season, the playoffs could be more wide open than ever.
Turns out that was true.
The Miami Heat are in the NBA Finals against the Lakers, and Miami reached the final stage despite a No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Heat finished with a 44-29 record, a .603 winning percentage that was a game behind 45-28 Indiana and a game in front of 43-30 Philadelphia. Six Western Conference teams finished with a better record than Miami’s 44-29, including the Thunder, which went 44-28.
The Heat, with the league’s 11th-best record, becomes one of the NBA’s all-time Cinderella stories, at least by number.
Only three other teams seeded lower than fourth have reached the NBA Finals:
*. The 1981 Rockets, 40-42 in the regular season, were seeded sixth but beat the Lakers 2-1, the Spurs 4-3 and the Kings 4-1. In the NBA Finals, the Celtics beat Houston 4-2.
*. The 1995 Rockets, 47-35 in the regular season, were seeded sixth but beat the Jazz 3-2, the Suns 4-3, the Spurs 4-2 and finally, for the NBA title, Orlando 4-0. Houston was the defending champion that season and not terribly dedicated to the regular season. And the West was deep that year. Three Western Conference teams won at least 59 games and another won 57.
* The 1999 Knickerbockers, 27-23 in the lockout-shortened regular season, were seeded eighth but beat Miami 3-2, Atlanta 4-0 and Indiana 4-2, before losing to San Antonio 4-1 in the NBA Finals.
The Heat has been quite dominant in its streak through the East playoffs. Miami swept Indiana 4-0, beat top-seeded Milwaukee 4-1 and Boston 4-2. That’s a 12-2 record in these playoffs against teams with better regular-season records.
Would Miami have been so dominant if these playoffs had been conducted on home courts? Doesn’t seem likely. The Heat opened all three East series with two victories. Those series would have begun in Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Boston, respectively.
The Bucks were 28-3 at home this season. The Celtics were 24-8 at home this season. The Pacers were 21-11 at home this season.
Meanwhile, Miami was 14-19 on the road, before the pandemic suspended NBA play.
Sure, the Heat of September is different from the pre-pandemic Heat. Tyler Herro has emerged as a bona fide NBA player, Bam Adebayo is turning into a superstar and the trade that brought Jae Crowder and Andre Igoudala has given Miami the kind of wing depth of which most teams can only dream.
But still, the Orlando bubble gave Miami a chance to be on equal footing despite an inferior record, and the Heat has taken advantage.
Others could have, too, including the Thunder. The Jazz took a 3-1 series lead on Denver and was eliminated only when Mike Conley’s 3-pointer at the buzzer rimmed out. Could Utah have made a deep playoff run? Yes.
But it’s more difficult in the West. The Western Conference is deeper, and its No. 1 seed has LeBron James, which means upsets are in short supply.
So sure, the Heat had an easier path in the Eastern Conference. And Miami made the most of it, to historic levels.