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NBA Daily: Miami Goals Suddenly Look Achievable

Drew Maresca analyzes the Miami HEAT’s Game 1 win over the Indiana Pacers and their path to advancing to the Eastern Conference Semifinals and beyond.

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The Miami HEAT might be seen as long shots to win the 2020 NBA Championship, but no one told them. The HEAT looked every bit the part of a contender on Tuesday in Game 1 of the Miami HEAT’s first-round matchup with the Indiana Pacers. They handily won 113-101, led by All-Star Jimmy Butler.

And who knows, maybe we’ve had Butler all wrong. Maybe he is a top-end star that can lead a team deep into the playoffs. He sure looked like it on Tuesday, finishing with 28 points, four assists, three rebounds, four steals and two blocks, including an incredibly clutch shot late in the game.

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But no one was sure what to expect from the HEAT entering the playoffs – especially given the fickle environment created within the bubble, which has led to a number of surprising outcomes including the Bucks and Lakers both losing their opening playoff games.

Returning from play stoppage, the HEAT were 29-7 at home and only 15-22 on the road. That didn’t bode well for Miami, who would need to play all remaining games on a neutral court in central Florida and hundreds of miles from AmericanAirlines Arena. Plus, they looked rusty in the bubble prior to the playoffs, winning only three of their eight games.

But last night was a stark reminder that the HEAT are for real. In addition to Butler’s tone-setting performance, Bam Adebayo played incredibly well (17 points, 10 rebounds and six assists), as did Goran Dragic (24 points, six rebounds and five assists) and Tyler Herro (15 points on 5-for-9 shooting).

What’s more, the HEAT – and mostly Butler – successfully slowed down TJ Warren (22 points), one of the best of the bubble with a 33.8 point-per-game average, and they looked every bit the part of contender. There’s also the strong play and leadership of Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala. And they didn’t even get contributions from their rookie phenom Kendrick Nunn (DNP) and sharp-shooter Duncan Robinson (six points on 2-for-8 shooting from three-point range).

The HEAT are up 1-0 in the first-round and have a long way to go before advancing to the semi-finals – but assuming for a moment that they advance, what can they look forward to?

Initially, they would have a date with the Milwaukee Bucks. The HEAT are 2-1 against Milwaukee this season with their most recent matchup taking place Aug. 6. The Bucks, like the HEAT, played better at home this season (28-3) than they did on the road (25-9), and they’ve struggled since returning to action in the bubble (3-5). Unlike Miami, the Bucks lost their opening game yesterday, which has led to much speculation about their ability to adapt.

Still, the Bucks boast a scary mix of size and skill – and defending the league’s reigning MVP is never fun. The Magic showed the world how to defend the Bucks –building a wall around Giannis Anteokounmpo, challenging him to shoot and making others beat you – and the HEAT could easily copy that strategy. Further, they can probably find ways to capitalize on the Adebayo-Brook Lopez matchup, frustrating the Bucks’ big man by making him defend Adebayo on the perimeter and on the move. But ultimately, the HEAT’s chances live and die with Anteokounmpo and Khris Middleton, and how well they shoot and make decisions.

From there, the HEAT would likely match up with either the Raptors, Celtics or 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals. In 2019-20, the HEAT went 2-1 against the Raptors, 1-2 versus the Celtics and 3-1 against the 76ers. Meanwhile, injuries have hurt the HEAT’s potential Eastern Conference foes, improving Miami’s chances at advancing from there. Celtics’ wing Gordon Hayward tweaked his ankle, forcing him to miss the next four weeks, which badly hurts Boston’s depth. Meanwhile, the 76ers are still without All-Star Ben Simmons, who is sidelined for the remainder of the playoffs with a knee injury. The 76ers are 4-5 since returning from play stoppage including a Game 1 loss to Boston on Monday.

Ultimately, Miami looks every bit as strong as they did at any point this season and their competition in the Eastern Conference simply does not. The HEAT still need things to break their way in terms of shooting and they must play smart and disciplined, but Miami is well-suited to make a deep playoff run.

Still, the most important thing for the HEAT is staying in the moment — a sentiment echoed by Robinson back in December.

“We talk about that stuff [goals] and it stays between us in this locker room,” Robinson told Basketball Insiders before a game against the Brooklyn Nets. “But at the same time, we understand that the day-to-day is more important. We want to keep the big picture in mind, but we also want to take care of what’s on our plate right in front of us.”

The HEAT can’t afford to look ahead just yet, and they know that. Look what happened to the Lakers and Bucks when they did just that – and Miami doesn’t have nearly as much talent as Los Angeles or Milwaukee. If they are to advance, the HEAT must take these playoffs one game at a time.

Basketball Insiders contributor residing in the Bronx, New York.

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