But good luck getting Heat star Jimmy Butler to agree with either of those facts. And, ahead of Game 1 of the Finals tipping off here inside the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort on Wednesday night, Butler remained resolute in his belief that Miami is every bit the equal of the star-studded Lakers.
“A really good team,” Butler said Tuesday, during the NBA’s annual Finals media day, of how he views the Heat entering this series. “That’s it. A really good team. Not going to say that we’re any better than anybody else, but I just don’t think that we’re underdogs. I don’t.
“So what that nobody picked us to be here? That’s OK. Pretty sure nobody is picking us to win, either. That’s OK. But we understand that. We embrace that, because, at the end of the day, we truly don’t care. We’re just going to go out here and compete, play together like we always have, and I’m going to see where we end up.
“But at the end of the day we’re going to do this our way, the Miami Heat way, and that way has worked for us all year long.”
The Heat have certainly embraced the lack of expectations placed upon them all season long — and have thrived. Miami entered the season with 75-to-1 odds to win the title, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information, easily the lowest of any Finals team of the past 30 years. The only team to come close? The 2002 New Jersey Nets, who were 60-to-1 long shots before reaching the Finals and being swept by the three-peat Lakers of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
Over the past 30 years, no other team has been a longer shot than 30-to-1 to make the Finals, with the 28-to-1 Warriors in 2015 being the longest shot to win the title. None of that matters much to Butler, however, who has completely embraced everything that comes with being a member of the Heat since arriving as part of a sign-and-trade deal with the Philadelphia 76ers last July.
“I think, like I said, I just get to be me here,” Butler said. “I get to call it how I see it. Nobody takes it personally. I don’t have to worry about anybody trying to control me, as it was said people were trying to do over there [in Philadelphia].
“But I have no hard feelings towards any of those players, anybody in that organization. I’m glad to be where I am. As you can tell, it’s worked out, and that’s where I’ll leave it. I knew what we could do here. We added some key pieces in the middle of the year, and we are where we are. So, I don’t really look back at it too much. I’ve got to stay focused in on the right now and with the group that I have.”
The Heat are a group that has not only defied expectations, but has blown past them. Miami was an underdog against both the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals and the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.
And, in both series, the Heat wore down their opponents as each individual game, as well as the series as a whole, progressed. It’s a singular mindset that served the team well, and now has it back in the NBA Finals for the first time since 2014 — when LeBron James, their opponent in this series, was last in a Heat uniform.
After beating the Celtics in Game 6 of the conference finals Sunday night, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said he and his players took a night to celebrate their accomplishment.
But by the next morning, it was back to work.
“We did take a night just to acknowledge it and enjoy it,” Spoelstra said. “The players and the staff and families that were here, I wanted everybody to have perspective on how difficult this is, how extraordinary of an experience all of this is, being part of this bubble, being here for 80-plus days, surviving all of it and earning the right to compete for an NBA title. We just got off a very competitive, hard-fought series, and emotionally I don’t think anybody was ready just to turn that page.
“But yesterday was a workday. For the players, it was a day just to recover and relax. We got together last night and did some more prep today.”
Now, the Heat will move on to the task of taking on the Lakers. And while Butler may not think his team is an underdog in this series, he did acknowledge that, for himself and most of his teammates, getting this far is a new experience and there will be some nerves when Game 1 tips off Wednesday night.
“I don’t know,” Butler said. “You know, we’ll see as the game goes. But I think there’s a lot of nerves for a lot of people, including myself. This is the first time being here, so I just want to make sure that everybody is comfortable. We’ve been playing a certain way this entire year. I’m not getting away from that. I think that’s winning basketball for us, me making sure that everybody is involved. I think that’s part of my role on this team, so we’ll take it as the game goes, and we’ll figure it out. But, I mean, I’m sure before the game, [Haslem], [Iguodala], [Spoelstra], they’ll definitely tell me what to look for and how to start, I guess.”
Goran Dragic said Haslem and Iguodala’s work in that department has already begun.
“You know, [their message was] simple,” Dragic said. “They said, ‘Guys, we deserve this, and just enjoy it. Enjoy the moment, be present.’
“Those two guys, they know what it takes to win, and they give us that confidence that we can do it. You know, everybody is locked in. Everybody is paying attention. Everybody is on the same page and can’t wait to start.”
While Butler doesn’t want to see the Heat as underdogs, they are slight ones according to Caesars by William Hill, where Miami is rated as +300 to win the series. He can take some solace in the fact, however, that the line opened as Miami being +420 to win, and quickly began to drop.
Still, in an alternate universe, Butler could have been on the other side of this series, as the Lakers did initially have a max cap slot last summer — which they used to pursue Kawhi Leonard, before he ultimately chose the LA Clippers instead.
But Butler didn’t ever consider that possibility. After one meeting with Spoelstra and Heat president Pat Riley, there was no doubt in his mind where he wanted to be.
“I knew the type of structure that I wanted and needed, and it was here,” Butler said. “Heard about it, obviously, when I was meeting with Coach Spo, Coach Pat. It just felt right in every aspect of it, how there’s just — we’ve got a bunch of good people here. Not to say that the Lakers don’t got a great bunch of good people. But everything we’re about, just me working, we’ve got a group of guys that do that, as well as saying it like it is, holding everybody accountable and moving on from it. They said that that’s how we do that. You get to come here and you get to be you, so I’m in.”