• Kyle Russell

The Miami Heat's Long Road Back to the Eastern Conference Finals

The fifth seed Miami Heat shocked the NBA world upsetting the first overall seed Milwaukee Bucks to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. While competitive, the series overall wasn’t even close; only a Game 4 overtime loss prevented the Heat from sweeping the Bucks. It’s been an incredible turnaround for a team that missed the playoffs just last season. Team President Pat Riley responded that summer by overhauling the roster, making the Miami Heat an elite team in the East again.

The Heat now move on to their first Eastern Conference Finals since the last year of the Big 3 era. For context, this was back when the Golden State Warriors were just an up-and-coming team, LeBron James had yet to win Cleveland a title, and Kevin Durant still played for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Since the departure of James, the Heat have bounced in and out of the playoffs but were never a serious threat even when they got there. 

To no surprise, losing the best player on the planet can cause a team to stumble. In the 2014-15 season, the Heat still were all in, swinging a trade to land All-NBA third team Goran Dragic. But between the fatigue of four straight Finals runs and Chris Bosh sadly ending his season due to blood clots, the Heat missed the playoffs. The 2015-2016 season saw the full emergence of Hassan Whiteside, who along with Bosh, Dragic, and a rejuvenated Dwyane Wade had Miami back in the playoff picture. Bosh would tragically go down with blood clots again, ending his NBA career. The Heat would make the 2016 playoffs and come within a Game 7 loss of the Conference Finals. Wade would depart that free agency, signaling the end of Miami’s Big 3.

The 2016-2017 season will always be remembered for the Heat famously going 11-30 in the first half of the season but an incredible 30-11 in the second half. Unfortunately the Heat had dug themselves too big a hole, failing to make the playoffs on the very last day. With the core of that team resigned, Miami entered the 2017-2018 season confident they could repeat but stumbled throughout the season. The trade deadline return of Dwyane Wade brought life back to the organization as they went on to clench the sixth seed in the East. Facing a much more talented Philadelphia 76ers, the Heat were beaten soundly in the first round in five games. 

Going into 2018-2019, the Heat’s outlook was bleak. The deals they had signed in 2016 and 2017 were turning sour, crippling Miami financially while a lack of draft picks hurt them in the trade market. The 2018-2019 season ultimately ended up being about Dwyane Wade’s upcoming retirement, a season-long celebration of everything Wade meant to the franchise. Miami tried but failed to make the playoffs, the third time in the last five years. 

With the team clearly not talented enough to compete, Riley went into the summer with intent to overhaul. Sending out Whiteside, Josh Richardson, and a first round pick, the Heat got their undisputed alpha Jimmy Butler along with Meyers Leonard. Duncan Robinson was promoted from the G-league to the starting roster. The Heat drafted Tyler Herro and signed Kendrick Nunn. As the 2019-2020 season got underway, the Heat quickly established themselves among the elite teams in the East. At the trade deadline they finished their roster overhaul, sending out Justise Winslow, James Johnson, and Dion Waiters in return for Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder, and Solomon Hill.

The Heat entered the 2020 playoffs with the fifth seed, their first matchup being the fourth seeded Indiana Pacers. The Heat went on to sweep the Pacers in four games, though the Pacers were nowhere near full strength with Victor Oladipo struggling to return to form and missing All-Star Domantas Sabonis. 

Going into the Semifinals against the Bucks, many assumed the Heat had reached their ceiling. And yet, the Heat blew away the Bucks to take a 1-0, then 2-0, then 3-0 lead. The Heat effectively used what the Toronto Raptors did last offseason, building a wall against Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. By limiting his drives, the Heat forced the rest of the roster to beat them, racking up the wins as a result. The Bucks would lose Antetokounmpo in Game 4 to an ankle injury, but they still rallied to take the game to overtime and win, avoiding the sweep but still down 1-3. The Heat responded by closing out Game 5 and the series, advancing past the Bucks in a way no one would have predicted. 

It’s been a long road since they were last here, but the Miami Heat have emerged as an Eastern Conference Finalist. At the time of this writing, the Heat are currently waiting for Game 7 of Boston Celtics vs. the Toronto Raptors to learn who they’ll be facing. Regardless of the opponent, the Heat legitimately have a chance to make the NBA Finals. Their roster plays well on both sides, has depth to play multiple looks and styles, and has the top-level talent needed to close out playoff games. Many criticized the Heat’s chances of being a legit Finals contender, but here they are now at the door of the NBA Finals.

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