For Heat, stopping James Harden and Joel Embiid, letting Jimmy Butler ‘be me’ all a matter of trust

MIAMI — Some love is just a lie of the soul. A constant battle for the ultimate state of control.

Billy Joel said that. He wasn’t talking about the Miami Heat at the time, as he wrote “A Matter of Trust” in 1986. The Heat didn’t exist yet. But the lyrics fit.

Miami’s reputation is authoritarian. The ultimate state of control always belongs to management. Team president Pat Riley has set that tone for decades, and Erik Spoelstra manages it. There is little dispute about this. It’s why Spoelstra constantly says “we’re not for everybody.” More is typically asked of Heat players at practice and on defense than at other NBA stops.

But the Heat are evolving a little, providing more of a two-way street, placing the same trust in their players that Miami asks of them to accept the Riley/Spo way of doing things. This trust is manifesting itself in how the Heat are successfully defending the 76ers’ James Harden and Joel Embiid and, more broadly, how they are navigating this playoff journey with the collection of stars on this roster, in the modern era.

The Heat can reach the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in three seasons by beating Philadelphia tonight in Game 6.

Miami’s defense Tuesday in Game 5 was masterful. Neither Embiid nor Harden could have much of an attack in the Heat’s 120-85 triumph. Embiid scored 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting, and Harden mustered 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting.

After Harden beat the Heat in Game 4 with 31 points, hints were dropped that adjustments were coming. Generally speaking, Miami was going to pay a little less attention to Embiid, putting more pressure on Bam Adebayo to deal with the bruising, MVP runner-up by himself, and more attention to Harden with blitzes, traps and asking primary defenders to fight through screens rather than calling for switches.

The Heat’s defensive schemes are almost always complex. They involve multiple looks and multiple efforts. Confusion can set in because players (and coaches) get lost from possession to possession on which coverage Miami was using each time down the court.

The Heat’s coaching staff lives with the occasional mixup because the schemes themselves are apparently collaborative.

“It’s crazy because I thought (Spoelstra) was going to be more of, like, a dictator,” said PJ Tucker, the Heat’s stud wing defender who is in his first season with the team. “I thought he was going to be like, ‘This way, or we’re not doing it,’ but he’s not like that. I thought he was, playing against him.”

Tucker signed a two-year, $14.3 million deal with the Heat last summer. He came to the Heat thinking it was Spoelstra’s way or the highway, because as he said, that’s how it looked to him last season when he was on the Milwaukee Bucks and they swept the Heat out of the playoffs. And also, because players talk. The Heat’s reputation precedes itself.

But between Games 4 and 5 of this Sixers series, Tucker said, Spoelstra’s defensive adjustments were predicated on conversations between Tucker, Jimmy Butler and Adebayo — Miami’s three best available defenders (Kyle Lowry is hurt; he would be on that list too).

“He let us talk and figure it out, and I think that’s huge because we’re the ones out there doing it,” Tucker said. “With our experience and guys being defensive-minded, to come to a conclusion together rather than saying this is what he wants and this is how we’re going to go — he gives us a chance to make our own adjustments and try it out , see how it works.

“I am appreciative of that, because it’s not always like that.”

Spoelstra said being able to defend against Harden and Embiid at the same time is only possible if there is “great detail and focus and trusting each other.” He credited Adebayo for accepting the challenge (the one Bam apparently helped come up with) of taking on Embiid, calling the 7-foot Sixers star “arguably the toughest cover at that position” in the NBA. Spoelstra said Adebayo’s performance transcended the 12 points, six rebounds and two blocks that showed up next to his name on the stat sheet.

“I really hope the average fan can really take joy, and the basketball aficionado, just how complex this series is,” Spoelstra said. “Bam did so many things that impacted this win.”

The Heat always have been built, in part, on self-sacrifice, and Adebayo is perhaps the franchise’s current model citizen for it. But again, the Heat also are bending their own ways to make sure this thing, with this group, works.


Excuse the awkward transition, but I am aware you likely do not care about media access. It’s a topic that is only important to journalists, but hear me out.

For years (and years), part of Heat culture was maximum accountability. Every Miami superstar — from Shaquille O’Neal to Alonzo Mourning to Dwyane Wade to LeBron James to Chris Bosh — was required to speak after virtually every practice and every shootaround and, of course, after games. There was no running and hiding from the press.

LeBron’s experience in the Heat organization changed him. He brought the work ethics, accountability, attention to detail, discipline and, yes, media habits, with him back to Cleveland when he left South Beach.

Now, the Heat allow both Butler and Lowry to avoid all requests for interviews after shootarounds, and they aren’t required to speak after most practices. Again, it’s subtle to you, but a huge departure from a long-standing component of Heat culture.

I was thinking about this specific pillar and wondering what other allowances the Heat were making for Butler, their top star now, while listening to his answer after Game 5 Tuesday when he was asked what’s allowed him to raise his game in Miami when his team needs him most. Butler etched a small place for himself in Miami lore by spearheading the Heat’s improbable 2020 Finals run, and he’s been dominant so far this postseason.

“They allow me to be me here,” Butler said. “They allow me to just hope and not say too much. Good, bad, indifferent, they rock with me. That’s the best feeling to have, especially right now in the playoffs. I think that’s the reason Coach Pat (Riley) brought me here. We are who we are.”

Shaq already was a champion, already wore the scars of the troubled parts of his relationship with Kobe Bryant and had already played under the tutelage of Phil Jackson when he joined Riley on the Heat. It was easy for him to conform and support Wade. Meanwhile, Wade never knew any other way as a pro. LeBron had to change a number of things about his game to make it work.

For Butler — and for Lowry and Tucker and whomever else — the Heat are showing their own maturity and evolution as a franchise to show players a little leeway when they need it.

Joel’s song, my inspiration for this piece, is about all the ways couples break up, usually about some kind of lie. They may not want it to end. But it will, it’s just a question of when. The same fate is waiting for this Heat team, as with every other NBA contender eventually, but Miami is nine wins from its fourth NBA title by listening to its players in addition to making demands.

That can’t happen to us. It’s always been a matter of trust.


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(Photo of Jimmy Butler: Jasen Vinlove / USA Today)

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