East champion Heat are thinking even bigger this season

MIAMI (AP) — They don’t have banner-raising ceremonies in Miami for anything other than NBA championships and jersey retirements. Eastern Conference title banners go to the rafters quietly, without fanfare.

That’s fine with Jimmy Butler.

Miami’s run to the NBA Finals last season as the No. 5 seed in the East represented Butler’s best playoff result yet, by far. But it’ll be the Los Angeles Lakers handing out championship rings, not the Heat, and that means Butler still has work to do.

“Still not content,” Butler said. “I haven’t won anything worth saying that I won. I think I have a long way to go. My team has a long way to go.”

That last sentence is debatable.

The East champs bring back most of the core from last year, including their top seven overall scorers. Butler was an All-Star, as was Bam Adebayo. Duncan Robinson’s shooting exploits were arguably the best in the NBA, Kendrick Nunn was second in the rookie of the year voting and Tyler Herro capped his rookie year with a dazzling bubble playoff run.

Few would have believed the Heat when last season started if they announced themselves as championship contenders then.

Few would probably scoff at it now.

“We probably all in this building live in a place of irrational purpose,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Once we got Jimmy, our player development with Bam and the rest of the young guys, we felt that we had a really special team and we just focused on the process. … We feel a great responsibility, too. When you get somebody like Jimmy you have to put together a team that’s ready to compete right now.”

Butler tried to carry Miami at times in the bubble during the playoffs, and shrugged off a question about how he got himself ready to play following an offseason that essentially was less than two months between the conclusion of the NBA Finals loss to the Lakers and the start of training camp.

“You don’t really care,” Butler said.

Some other things to know about the Heat going into the season:

3 FOR ALL

The 3-pointer was a weapon for Miami last season and don’t expect that to change. In a 73-game regular season, nine games shorter than usual, the 2019-20 Heat made more 3-pointers (979) than any other team in franchise history had in a season — even including their playoff totals. The Heat had four players — Robinson (270), Nunn (137), Goran Dragic (124) and Herro (116) — make more than 100 3’s apiece last season. Only Dallas (six) and New Orleans (five) had more players reach the century mark from beyond the arc.

BREAKOUT BAM

Adebayo — whose max contract that’ll be worth at least $163 million over five years kicks in next season — finished last season averaging 15.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists, on 55.7% shooting. The only players in NBA history to do all that in the same season: Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2018-19, Wilt Chamberlain in both 1966-67 and 1967-68, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1978-79.

BUTLER’S DEFENSE

For as great a player as Butler is, his defense still seems overlooked. Butler — one of Miami’s more physical defenders — not only didn’t foul out of a game last season, but he never even had a five-foul game. He’s fouled out of a game only once in his career, back in March 2016. Of the 72 players in the NBA with at least 1,900 minutes last season, Butler had by far the fewest fouls with 81. Next on that list? Harrison Barnes with 93. The other 70 players all had more than 100, 10 of them reaching 200.

ELITE SPO

Spoelstra enters this season 41 games shy of becoming the 32nd coach in NBA history to reach the 1,000 regular-season game mark. Only six coaches with 1,000 games — Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Red Auerbach, Heat President Pat Riley, Jerry Sloan and Chuck Daly — have a better winning percentage than Spoelstra’s .591. Of those six, all but Popovich are already in the Basketball Hall of Fame (and the only reason why Popovich isn’t is because he’s asked not to be enshrined yet).

TOUGH START

Miami’s first 19 games — basically the first half of the season’s first half — shape up as potentially brutal, with 15 of them against clubs that went to last season’s playoffs. The Heat face two-time reigning MVP in Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks twice, play at Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Toronto (in Tampa) all twice, plus see Boston twice and visit Dallas on New Year’s Day. And if that wasn’t enough, February brings a 12-day, seven-game trip to Houston, Utah, both Los Angeles teams, Golden State, Sacramento and Oklahoma City.

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