Let’s start this playoff lesson with a personal story.
My day job had me working during the Play-In Game final between the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls were leading throughout the game and heading into the fourth quarter. A co-worker who is a Miami fan was loudly shouting across the office that he would prefer the Miami Heat to lose the game and net the Lottery pick rather than sneak into the playoffs just to get eliminated in the first round by the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks.
The current throughout all of NBA conversations is the fear of being in the middle. Nobody wants to be stuck in the yo-yo of making the Playoffs just to bow out in the first round and lose out on the chance of winning that fateful Lottery ticket in the Draft.
Teams that get stuck in this position usually have to face some difficult choices about their future. They have to assess whether their team can grow beyond their place in the middle of the standings or whether this is the ceiling.
The Orlando Magic were in that spot a few years ago. They believed they were a team that could still rise after their 2019 playoff appearance. They felt like the pandemic halted their run and growth in the 2020 season despite another low playoff appearance. And then it all fell apart in 2021 and they decided starting over was the only way forward.
That, of course, is not the Heat. They are a different kind of team. A team with a championship pedigree that somehow found itself at the bottom of the standings thanks to an oddly poor shooting season and a penchant for mucking game sup and keeping them close.
The Miami Heat were the surprise team of the postseason as they rode momentum to the Finals as an 8-seed. That should tell all young teams that the 8-seed is not merely a cameo in the Playoffs but a chance to win a title.
Still, the Miami Heat were an 8-seed (really the 7-seed, but they lost their first Play-In Game to the Atlanta Hawks, which just sounds weird typing it out loud). They should have been a quick out. They should have had no hope.
Then they beat the Milwaukee Bucks. Then the New York Knicks. Then took a 3-0 lead on the Boston Celtics and hung on to win in seven games on the road.
The Heat became the second 8-seed to reach the NBA Finals in history. And the first to do it that was not in a weird lockout-shortened season (the less we ever talk about the 1999 season beyond Tim Duncan’s first title, the better).
In the process, the Heat are both an outlier and an example.
In an NBA that is more talented than ever, the gap between the top teams and the teams in the middle may be smaller than everyone realized. Parity may be coming to the NBA in a major way.
Or this might be an isolated incident. The Heat might be a special team with the right mix of veterans, confidence and luck to make this kind of a run.
In either case, the lesson should be that anything is possible. That all you have to do is get into the playoff picture, get your record reset and see what happens when they tip it off in the Playoffs.
The league at times because the contenders are so predictable and the first round at times feels so pre-determined makes you forget that anything can still happen. The nature of a best-of-seven series eliminates a lot of the variance.
So what the Heat did deserves recognition. This was a team that struggled through much of the regular season. They were a worse 3-point shooting team in the regular season than the Magic were. Yet, when the playoffs came around they became 3-point shooting juggernauts, outshooting both the Bucks and Celtics on their way to the Finals.
What the Heat really showed is you cannot get into the Finals if you are not in the playoff field. All you have to do is get to the show and you have a chance. And no team should reject that chance — looking at you, Dallas Mavericks.
Every team sitting in eighth should believe they are the next Miami Heat. But every team should also recognize how unique the Heat’s situation was.
Miami was the top seed in the Eastern Conference in 2022 and fell to eighth the next year. The team had veteran and championship-level experience with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. They have one of the greatest coaches in Erik Spoelstra who knows how to manage his team for a long playoff run and push the right buttons throughout the process.
Still, if you are a team like the Magic in a position to be one of these lower seeds, it gives the hope that it is possible to win these series. Teams that are in the Playoffs should not simply be happy to be there. They should treat the spot as a possibility to advance.
You cannot win a championship if you are not in the game.
No, the Magic will not be the Heat this year. If they make the playoffs this year, they will be new to the playoffs and their learning experience will come in going through the playoff process for the first time.
They are going to take their lumps in that first playoff series. Just be prepared for it now.
But what the Heat showed everyone is that these teams at the bottom should not merely accept their fate. They can learn and grow in defeat and they do actually have the chance to win. Everyone’s record is 0-0 in the playoffs and it is a race to four wins.
And anything can happen. The Heat were more prepared to advance and succeed in ways that typical 8-seeds are not. Nobody would think the Atlanta Hawks (who lost to the Boston Celtics in five games) or Chicago Bulls could do what the Miami Heat did.
In this way, we have to view the Heat as an outlier.
Typically teams in the middle are always at a crossroads. They are always thinking about the future and how to get better.
Well, nothing tells you that you are better than you think than winning the playoffs. Ultimately, for a lot of teams, that is the winning that matters. And so even teams competing in their series but ultimately losing could be a clue that there is something more unlocked in that team.
The Magic may not be able to advance out of the first round like the Heat did if they take over the 8-seed. Winning in the Play-In Tournament in itself could be very valuable for a young Magic team giving them experience winning in pressure situations — it is also why I love the In-Season Tournament for this team.
But the Heat more than putting up a fight should be a lesson to every 8-seed that they can compete. They do not have to roll over.
And for a Magic team on the rise, that belief and that push to win and compete in the first round should be more than enough motivation to get there and make the most of the opportunity.