Of the teams still in the playoffs, the Miami Heat stand out for all the right reasons.
In addition to having the best record among teams in the playoffs, Miami’s success includes sending the team with the league’s best overall regular season record, the Milwaukee Bucks, home following a second-round "Gentleman’s sweep" in five games.
And yet as we await Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Tuesday, there’s a (weak) narrative that the Heat are underdogs heading into this series.
Jimmy Butler and I are on the same page about that narrative.
“I don’t think we’re the underdog. I think we’re a really good team,” Butler said Saturday. “We play together; everybody knows their role and we just compete. We’re competitors.
"We’re not embracing ‘underdogs.' … We’re supposed to be here. That’s how we think of it. To us, we’re not underdogs, we’re competitors.”
That latter point Butler raises about being competitors is why this series will be much closer than you would expect.The Celtics and Heat faced each other three times in the regular season with Boston winning two of the three matchups.
Along with a bunch of missed shots by both teams, there were also plenty of key missing bodies in those contests.
“You almost can’t draw anything from those games,” said Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “There're so many different moving parts that are different. Both coaching staffs will continue to dive into all that, but that’s something that really stuck out to me, when you start diving into the film; somebody’s always been missing multiple people in each of those games.
"At the end of the day we’re a totally different team certainly then the first time we played them in December. And they’re a much different team. That’s what you expect from high-quality, high-level teams.”
Indeed, Miami hasn’t played like the fifth-best team in the East during the playoffs, racking up an impressive 8-1 record with a sweep of the Indiana Pacers in the first round before making quick work of the Bucks.
But the Heat face a Celtics squad that has a combination of talented youth and battle-tested playoff experience, with many players who are making their third trip to the Conference finals in the last four seasons after outlasting the defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors with a 92-87 Game 7 win on Friday.
And while Boston and Miami are familiar with one another from the regular season as well as facing off in the NBA bubble, both teams are very much in different places now.
The Heat practiced on Saturday and had their entire roster healthy enough to participate, a rarity for Miami this season.
Meanwhile, the Celtics have played all but one playoff game without Gordon Hayward (ankle) who has since been cleared to re-join the team and is expected to be available to play at some point in this series.
“It’s going to be a hard fought battle,” said Heat guard Goran Dragic. “We have our chances. We need to prepare ourselves and be in the best shape possible.”
Being in tip-top shape physically or mentally has not been an issue for the Heat, which is why despite Boston having the better regular season record and seemingly more "been-there, done-that" players to lean on, the Celtics will have to earn their first trip to the NBA Finals since 2010.
And while the Heat made short-work of its first and second round foes, Miami knows getting past the Celtics will require them to play even better than they have thus far.
“That’s what the playoffs are designed for,” Spoelstra said. “You are going to have to continue to improve and get to a higher level as the competition rises.”