The Miami Heat are the only NBA contender built as a UFC promotion. Knowing that it was inevitable that Heat culture almost turned that energy inward in a lousy loss to the Golden State Warriors. Udonis Haslem threatening to beat Jimmy Butler’s ass and Eric Spoelstra asking if Butler wants to “fight him” is the elixir that keeps team president Pat Riley young. Otherwise, why would he keep assembling these squads of backyard brawlers?
Style-wise and personality-wise, this mix of players is closest to the DNA of Riley’s most pugnacious ’90s Knicks teams than anything we’ve seen in the last three decades. Put on a mirror and Kyle Lowry, Udonis Haslem, Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and PJ Tucker look like pseudo-clones of Anthony Mason, John Starks, Patrick Ewing, Mark Jackson and Charles Oakley.
Thirty years ago, Anthony Mason rocked Xavier McDaniel chin during his first training camp and set the tone for the Knicks for the rest of the decade. This Heat team captured that same blend of ethanol and gasoline in a bottle with no real superstar in the bud. Jimmy Butler has never hit an opponent, but the infamous practice against Karl-Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins where Butler called them soft and proved it on the pitch is the stuff of legend.
Udonis Haslem spent much of his Heat career as Oakley at Dwyane Wade’s Jordan. He’s just there to put on screens, box, and potentially frame if a whippersnapper goes off the line. It’s been almost a year since his infamous three-minute, four-point, one-rebound, one-ejection performance against the Philadelphia 76ers. Shortly after, Miami rewarded him with another one year contract so he can return for his 18th season.
After the two-year, $30 million extension they gave Andre Iguodala in 2020 expired, Miami signed PJ Tucker to a 2-year, $14 million deal. Tucker is a 6-foot-5 microball center who averages single-digits and plays basketball like a monster truck. Tucker is either thrashing around in a cloud of dust on the floor or drilling a 3 or two wedges a night.
Markieff Morris has missed 58 games with whiplash, stemming from an incident in which he grossly fouled Nikola Jokić and failed to keep his lead on a pivot when the reigning MVP retaliated. In the aftermath, Markieff’s twin brother Marcus vowed revenge, prompting the Jokic brothers to join twitter and inform him that they wanted all the smoke.
Miami Heat rotation players do not have highlight videos. They have fight compilations.
Both teams also needed an agitator. John Starks had one of the most punchy faces of the 90s, and he used that skill to trick his opponents into doing it. The G-League gave Riley access to a whole host of John Starks. Most haven’t been as obnoxious, but they’ve found feisty guards who can mix it all up and won’t back down.
In 2015, he discovered Tyler Johnson, who had his teeth knocked out several times during training and matches. The Heat have turned to their former two-way contract players Max Strus and Gabe Vincent this season. Strus has played in 47 of 49 games he was available before the all-star break, and Vincent played in 50 of the 54 games he was available for.
The 94 Knicks, who came one victory away from being crowned NBA champions, were one of the six lowest-rated teams in the entire NBA. The teams built by Riley are there to intimidate and ball. If the Heat emerge from the East, it will be because their hand-to-hand combat All-Stars have hoisted the rest of the league onto a flag pole by their toss.
The Miami Defense ranks fifth in points per 100 possessions and defends the paint better than any team in the league. Beating Miami requires a hot shot from the outside.
Miami has committed more fouls this season than 25 other teams and tied nearly double the loads of any NBA team.
They may seem like a primitive team built to win in the 90s, but if you want to enter a long distance contest with the Heat, they can do that too. Miami is shooting a league-best 37.3 percent from beyond the arc, even though Butler has been a 20 percent shooter from 3-point range all season.
Center Bam Adebayo is built like a defensive end but rocks like a perimeter safety. That and the fact that his nickname was Bam are probably the only two things Riley needed to see in his scouting report to draft Adebayo in 2017.
These Knicks were notorious for soliciting, but they couldn’t finish the job. Riley has won with superstar-laden teams stacked to the brim with Hall of Famers like Shaq, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Magic, Kareem and LeBron, but he’s proving a point with this Heat team.
Two years ago, Miami reached the final by flourishing inside the bubble. This season they have a slim hold on the No. 1 seed in the East after a 2 game slip. In a league run by superstars, the Heat’s uncompromising culture has thrived in a cosmopolitan megalopolis.