AS RIVAL TEAMS watched the Miami Heat climb out of the play-in muck and into the NBA Finals, many discussed the same question internally: What -- if anything -- can we learn from this?
For some executives, the answer was very little. The Heat's run, the thinking went, was some combination of a fluke and a reversion to normal for a team that had gone cold from 3-point range all season. Would they have survived even one round had Giannis Antetokounmpo not injured his back in the first game of Miami's first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks?
The Heat won most of that series in crunch time thanks to their own steady play and a series of inexplicable meltdowns from a veteran Milwaukee team that won the title only two years before. Miami for the playoffs was minus-50 in the first three quarters -- and an incredible plus-85 in fourth quarters and overtime.
Some of that was the Heat's own scorching long-range shooting. After clanking away to a 34% mark on 3s in the regular season -- 27th overall -- they drained 38% in the playoffs. Even their one prolonged slump in three Eastern Conference series was somehow perfectly timed -- isolated to the second round against the bricky New York Knicks; Miami shot 31% on 3s in that series and 41% across its other three series.
The Heat rode a heater to the Finals. Skeptics wondered: What can we learn from that? How is "make way more 3s than expected" a replicable strategy?
Others arrived at the same conclusion from almost the opposite starting point. They cited tracking data suggesting the Heat in the regular season had generated almost the same shot quality as in 2021-22 -- when they hit a league-best 38% on 3s and finished with the top record in the East. Their luck was bound to turn -- and did, in a flood of 3s when the games mattered most. Again: Could rivals inject that into their own team-building strategy?
But for some teams, that was the point -- and the worry: What if the Heat's run was proof that in the era of load management, 3-point shot variance, and the play-in tournament, the regular season now mattered much less? What would it mean if the play-in, the new collective bargaining agreement, and other factors were ushering in an era of unprecedented parity to a sport that had been defined by predictability and the inevitability of dynasties?
PARITY WORKS IN the NFL because there are so few games. The top seeds get postseason byes. Home-field advantage can be immensely important in one-game, winner-take-all formats. The regular season carries huge weight. What might increased parity mean in the regular season for an 82-game league in which 16 of 30 teams make the playoffs and home court doesn't mean quite as much because of the seven-game series format?