LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The image that captures the Miami Heat’s return to the NBA Finals was not a dunk or a blocked shot or a three-pointer. It was Bam Adebayo walking the ball up the court in the fourth quarter of a clinching playoff game. Adebayo, whose offensive game appeared so limited at Kentucky that when he went 14th in the draft, it felt too high... Adebayo, who took fewer than five shots a game as a rookie… yes, that Adebayo. The Heat wanted the ball in his hands as much as possible, because that is what he wanted, and everybody in the organization knew that at 23 years old, he had earned it.
“Bam’s one of the great competitors already in this Association,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Sunday night. “He’s going to become one of the great winners in history. He moves the needle in every single way.”
Think of Bam that way, and the Heat’s 6-game elimination of the Celtics makes sense. Think of Bam that way, and the Lakers should be very worried. He played like a franchise player against Boston.
LeBron James will face his old team in the NBA Finals, a juicy storyline in a juiceless environment. Imagine James going to Miami and playing an NBA Finals game in front of thousands of fans who wonder how much they will have to drink to convince themselves he betrayed them. It would have been fun. Instead, we have to settle for two days of the Heat and LeBron complimenting each other followed by an intriguing basketball matchup. The Lakers will have the two best players in the NBA Finals, and those two are among the five best players in the world. But Jimmy Butler is a top-10 player, and Adebayo showed again Sunday that he can wreck even a very good team, like the Celtics.
Adebayo was the difference in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and really, in the entire series. His stats in Game 6: 32 points (on 15 shots!), 14 rebounds, five assists. His stats for the series: 21.8 points on 59.7 percent shooting, 11.2 rebounds.
Even those numbers don’t really capture his impact. Adebayo can guard anybody on the floor, and his mere presence basically took two cards out of Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens’s poker hand. The Celtics should have a lethal small-ball lineup: Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Kemba Walker. But there is no benefit in going small against the Heat, because drawing Adebayo out to the perimeter does no good. He can bang against centers and harass guards.
He can also score more than most people envisioned three years ago, and now he is creating offense for others. Stevens summed up the difference between the teams in Game 6: “Adebayo deciding he's just going to drive the ball put us in a real bind with the shooters around him.” It is not normal for a 23-year-old 6-foot-9 power forward to do that, but Bam did.
“That’s what stars do,” Butler said more than once Sunday. Adebayo was coming off his worst game of the series, a 13-point, 8-rebound effort, and he blamed himself and vowed to do better. His Heat teammates and coaches collectively shook their heads and smiled at the same time.
“He didn’t let anybody down,” Butler said. “We played bad as a whole. But I love the fact that he wants that pressure. That’s what stars do.”
That’s what stars do. That changes the story here, doesn’t it? This is not just Butler and some nobodies who play hard. Adebayo is different. He is a defensive force and a matchup nightmare. He is still not Anthony Davis—not as skilled, not as long—but he gives Miami a chance against Davis and the Lakers.
This is what can happen when a franchise focuses on talent scouting and player development instead of tanking and star-chasing. The Heat saw something in Adebayo: the traits that define the organization. Toughness, character, work ethic, strength. All the boring stuff. When Spoelstra and Pat Riley met with Butler during free agency in the summer of 2019, they knew they had a running mate for him—a guy whose style of play would appeal to Butler.
“I pay attention to a lot of guys, to (see who) just play(s) hard,” Butler said. “Because whenever you want to admit it or not, that's a talent. It's hard to play hard for 48 minutes, and I knew that he was going to be key in what we were trying to do. Talking to Coach Pat and talking to Coach Spo, and them saying what he can do... but then when you actually get out there with him, it's so different, because he really can do it better than anybody.”
Adebayo gives the Heat a chance in the Finals. How strong of a chance is hard to say. But a chance. It helps that, when the Heat show up for Game 1 Wednesday night, it won’t be in Staples Center in L.A., with 16 championship banners and all those retired numbers overhead and 20,000 people screaming for LeBron. That game will be in the same little arena called The Arena where the Heat beat Boston. This might not feel like the Finals usually feel, except for LeBron’s presence. And maybe that helps the Heat.
Spoelstra told ESPN that his team loves to work so hard, “this group would have done it in an empty gym with nobody watching,” and he did not seem to realize:, they basically just did that. That will be the environment for the Finals, too. They will compete for an internationally renowned championship on a community stage. It suits them.
“The thing that makes this team so special is we really kick it with each other,” Adebayo said. “We really hang out. I feel like that's the best thing.”
Butler said the Heat has to play “damn near perfect” to beat the Lakers. Well, maybe. They are babies by NBA Finals standards. Adebayo is just 23. Tyler Herro is 20. Adebayo was asked about James playing in the Finals in nine of the last 10 years, and even though he was wearing a mask, it was clear he could barely process that achievement. He was told the streak started when he was 14, and he started laughing. But it was not nervous laughter. Adebayo and the Heat will be ready.