The Miami Heat resemble a team that won on the scorecard instead of the scoreboard. In the 2022 Eastern Conference Finals cage match, the Celtics have a few lumps on their skulls.
NBA officials have spent the last few decades trying to turn the NBA into a hardwood ballet choreography of offensive sets, dribble manipulations, and finesse movements. The Miami Heat are disruptors to that order in a multitude of ways. They don’t just play defense, the Heat make you feel like you rushed the stage and ran into a team of bouncers.
Their inherent scrappiness is evident in their lineup, composed of players like Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, Gabe Vincent, and Max Strus, who scrapped to be noticed. One of the most iconic images of this season centered around the Miami Heat huffin’ and puffin’ outside the Denver Nuggets locker room after Nikola Jokić’s shove of Markieff Morris resulted in the latter being stretchered off the floor. They were never going to throw hands. After all, the only thing between them storming the locker room was a Tom Thibodeau facsimile, but it was an intimidation move.
Heat Culture has always had the feel of a UFC fight camp. Their world-class conditioning isn’t for everyone. Recently, former Heat forward Jermaine O’Neal recounted staring down Oreos in his fridge one night and realizing that re-signing in Miami wasn’t in the cards. When they aren’t mean mugging opponents outside their locker rooms, they’re locking horns with each other on the sidelines like they did late in the season, when Udonis Haslem threatened to kick Jimmy Butler’s ass.
Miami put that fight camp training to good use in Game 2. Fittingly, they were led by a brawny big nicknamed Bam and a 37-year-old defensive specialist in PJ Tucker, who neutralizes stars with Krav Maga techniques. Tucker is the Heat lineup linebacker, and he was a crucial piece in Milwaukee getting over the hump this season he’s been a heavy hitter for Miami.
As Jimmy Butler sat out the second half of Miami’s dwindling lead for treatment on his knee, Tucker went on the offensive, scoring 17 and had his hand in every pot. Tucker didn’t just neutralize Jayson Tatum, he outplayed him on both ends. Defensively, he was crucial in getting Tatum off balance. Tatum finished with 10 points on 21.4 shooting percent from the field, including 14.3 percent behind the arc and six turnovers. Max Strus, the former two-way contract player who has replaced Duncan Robinson in the lineup, scored 16.
Tatum and Marcus Smart are a testament to how brutal Boston’s match against Heat Culture has become. This series has resulted in more injuries than a 10-car pile-up on black ice. Tatum has been hounded by Tucker all series, but a shoulder stinger sent him to the locker room in the final five minutes of regulation. He would return, but those valuable seconds may have made the difference.
The NBA typically gives teams 48 to 72 hours between games in each round of the postseason to recover. Matches take weeks to bounce back. Both Tatum and Marcus Smart toughed it out after heading back to the locker room. Smart’s ankle is almost certainly going to hinder his movement for the remainder of this series, if he can even play on Monday. Tatum’s pride has a black eye, but he has an opportunity to rebound.
From what we’ve seen so far, Miami is more suited for a knockdown, drag-out brawl than Boston, especially if they have a healthy Jimmy Butler. His sudden knee inflammation is a precarious affliction that doesn’t sound like it will be serious, but there’s no telling how it will respond if he tries to give it a go in Game 4, or if the inflammation flares up further down the line.
Boston and Miami will continue beating each other up and Boston is trying to exchange blows in close quarters. They both want all the smoke. But the pugnacious Heat are bringing an energy that Boston may struggle to match.