ORLANDO — It’s been six years since LeBron James informed his close buddy, Dwyane Wade, he was signing with the Cleveland Cavaliers as they were aboard a plane to Las Vegas. That decision changed the direction of the Miami Heat franchise.
After making four consecutive NBA Finals appearances and winning two, the Heat were back to Square One. James was leaving and Chris Bosh developed blood clots soon after and would play just 97 more games over the next two seasons.
The Heat missed the playoffs in three of the next five seasons, making a return to the Eastern Conference finals this season after a reorganization that included the acquisition of tough guys Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, and Andre Iguodala.
The Butler acquisition, which cost the Heat a first-round pick, Hassan Whiteside, and Josh Richardson, has transformed the franchise into the juggernaut it was in the previous decade. The Heat have prided themselves on their workmanlike culture, relentless defense and professionalism.
Coach Erik Spoelstra has maintained the course of the organization through difficult times and a multitude of roster changes since James’s departure.
“It’s not easy to get to the conference finals and our organization knows that,” he said. “We’ve been trying desperately to get back to the conference finals. That’s not our ultimate goal, we get it. But you can still acknowledge the journey, how hard that it is to get to this point.”
Butler added a level of toughness the Heat had been lacking. They wagered on players such as Dion Waiters, James Johnson, and the oft-injured Justise Winslow, but kept going in circles. The Heat had just one first-round playoff appearance in the past three years before president Pat Riley decided to make the Butler trade.
The club then moved Winslow and Johnson to get an aging but still effective Iguodala and Crowder, a former Celtic.
“This is why we brought Jimmy Butler here,” Spoelstra said. "This is why we brought this team together with the veterans, adding Andre and Jae, building around Goran [Dragic] and Bam [Adebayo], having the young core. Our goal was to try to do something in the playoffs. We’ve been at this 25 years under the Riley-[Micky] Arison leadership and we’ve tried every single year.
The Heat have also been helped by acquiring two elite shooters: Tyler Herro as a first-round pick and Duncan Robinson, a native of York, Maine, as an undrafted free agent. The two have made Miami tough to defend because they stretch the floor. Butler provides the tough buckets. Adebayo is a skilled big man while Dragic is a crafty point guard who has given the Celtics fits over the years.
“If you have a star player that’s only thinking about scoring 35 points a game then guys like Bam wouldn’t grow into the role that he did,” Spoelstra said. “Jimmy and Goran have really allowed guys to grow as the season went on. We’re built where more guys have to contribute, but in moments of truth you have guys like Jimmy, Goran, who can take over a game.”
Crowder, who played with the Celtics in the 2017 conference finals, has been a stunning acquisition. In 20 games with the Heat, he shot 44.5 percent from the 3-point line, more than 10 percent above his career average. In the postseason, Crowder has averaged 12.8 points and shot 40 percent from beyond the arc.
“These guys have really embraced me when I first walked through the door, they told me I was a Heat player and they was excited just as much as I was excited,” Crowder said. “So that made the transition a lot easier, and obviously these guys play hard. That’s right up my alley, right there. I just wanted to give them what they’ve given me. They give me a lot of energy and confidence on the court. It meshed from Day One. These guys put a lot of work in and I’m not shy about working.”
The Celtics will have to account for Crowder beyond the arc. He will also be the primary defender on Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown.
“Jae’s been to the conference finals. He’s been on a lot of winning teams,” Spoelstra said. “There are so many different qualities that we had him tagged as a Miami Heat-type guy and he has lived up to all of them, if not more. He has really surprised me with the leadership qualities in the locker room.”
As for Butler, who gained an unsavory reputation as a difficult teammate in his previous stops in Minnesota and Philadelphia, he has been allowed to flourish and lead as a franchise cornerstone.
“It’s an intensity level that he brings which is uncommon,” Spoelstra said. “The really unique quality about Jimmy is his relatability, but you don’t really see it unless you’re around him all the time. He’s such a likeable guy but he doesn’t want anybody to know that, I guess. He’s totally cool with the young guys growing. He’s not territorial at all.”
Butler said he just wanted teammates who were willing to work as hard as he does and understand that his criticism is only to make them better. The Heat have welcomed the tough love.
“It’s better than I thought it was,” he said. “I always say, we just work here and we’re just honest with one another. That’s what I love about these group of guys is you can always be honest with one another and nobody takes anything personal."