The Miami Heat are one win away from becoming the first 8-seed to reach the NBA conference finals since the 1998-99 New York Knicks. But what's their secret? How have the Heat gone from a team on the brink of elimination in the play-in tournament to the team with the best record in the playoffs?
One big play from the Heat's 109-101 win over the Knicks in Game 4 Monday perfectly encapsulates the key to Miami's postseason run.
The Knicks were trying to stage a late-game comeback, down seven points with just over three minutes left. Their All-Star forward, Julius Randle, blew past Bam Adebayo and drove toward the rim looking to cut the lead to five, or even four if he could make the basket and draw a foul. But instead of an open lane, Randle found Max Strus. The undrafted Heat forward anticipated Randle's path, rotated over to help, and took a vicious charge in the middle of the paint.
It was an offensive foul -- Randle's sixth -- and a turnover. Randle's night was done, and for all intents and purposes, so was the Knicks'. The Heat extended the lead to nine on the ensuing possession and the Knicks didn't get closer than seven the rest of the game.
Following their only loss of this series, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was asked about his team's disappointing performance in a postgame news conference. His answer said a lot about Heat culture.
"The deciding factors," Spoelstra said, were the loose balls the Knicks retrieved down the stretch. "The things that we take pride in -- ball in the air, ball on the floor -- they pretty much dominated that [in] those last six minutes."
Ball in the air. Ball on the floor. The Heat take pride in dirty work. They lost Game 2 in New York, when they lost the dirty work battle, but Miami is a stunning 7-2 in the 2023 playoffs in large part because it has made more hustle plays than its opponents. A decade ago this assessment would've sounded like an unprovable cliché, but now we have the numbers to back it up.
Back in 2015, the NBA started logging hustle stats. Eight years later, these quirky numbers are giving us a unique glimpse into the definitive element of this team's unlikely playoff success.
It does the dirty work.