As Heat prep for finals, Spoelstra lauds play-in tournament

From the play-in tournament to the NBA Finals, the Miami Heat continue to defy all odds. And as they prepare to cap off this unforgettable run, the Heat are grateful for the league’s experimental playoff format that helped put them on this stage.

Indeed, the headline-grabbing upsets over the Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks and Boston Celtics would not have been possible without the oft-criticized play-in tournament, a groundbreaking strategy that now has a star student in the Heat.

The play-in tournament, created by NBA commissioner Adam Silver, was installed to stop teams from losing games on purpose for better draft positioning, a strategy known as “tanking” around league circles. The league, by way of the play-in, also aimed to add more competition to the beginning of the NBA postseason, by including more teams from the bottom of the standings.

It was introduced in 2020 as part of the NBA restart after the COVID-19 shutdown, and by 2022, it was officially added as a full-time event to start off the postseason.

There has been negative feedback towards the play-in tournament, along the way, as league purists believe it jeopardizes the playoff probability of teams who would normally be in the No. 7 and No. 8 spots. Now, those two teams have to battle teams below them just to qualify. However, there are others who believe the play-in has been a worthwhile addition, and after this year, it’s doubtful that the league will consider scrapping it.

Not many around the NBA thought Miami’s Kaseya Center would still be hosting games in June. But Game 3 of the NBA Finals, between the Heat and Denver Nuggets, will be there on June 7. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Not only did the Heat win three rounds and advance to face the Denver Nuggets, with Game 1 tonight, the Los Angeles Lakers, also a play-in team, won two rounds.

“I do know the play-in helped. There are far less teams tanking. Everyone was fighting for it those last two months,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said last round. “Every game was must-see TV and that was in both conferences. So I think for the league, that’s probably the best thing that’s happened in the last decade.”

The Heat lost their first play-in game, to the Atlanta Hawks, but battled back to defeat the Chicago Bulls to secure the No. 8 spot.

Fast forward two months, and Miami is one of the more improbable Eastern Conference champions ever. And on Thursday, the Heat will again enter a playoff round as a decided underdog.

“We don’t care if you pick us to win. We never have. We never will. We know the group of guys we have in this locker room. We know that Coach (Spoelstra) puts so much confidence and belief in every one of us. (Team President) Pat (Riley) as well,” Heat star Jimmy Butler said last round. “Our circle is small, but this circle’s got so much love for one another. We pump constant confidence into everybody, and we go out there and we hoop. We play basketball the right way knowing that we always got a chance.”

Butler is the main culprit to the Cinderella run, averaging 28.5 points, 7 rebounds and 5.7 assists. He is averaging 29.4 minutes and has played in 17 postseason games, despite an ankle injury suffered in the series win over New York.

Butler and Spoelstra have given the Heat the faith and belief that they belong there, and those feelings are being translated on the hardwood. The team has improved in almost every regular-season statistic in the playoffs. The Heat, for instance, went from the 27th worst 3-point shooting team during the regular season with a .344% to the top shooting team in the playoffs with .388%.

“One thing about (Spoelstra), he always believed in all of us. I feel like that’s the biggest thing. Day in, day out, he always fueled us,” Miami center Bam Adebayo said. “He always came in with a positive mindset and wanted us to win. For us, it’s great to have a coach like that who believes in everybody, 1 through 15.”

The Heat are locked in, and they appear to believe they can beat any team that crosses their path. The Nuggets are next up.

Pablo Hernandez was born in Cuba and raised in Miami, Florida. He has a huge love for sports and aspires to be a sports analyst on television in the future.