Four dates. Two in the summer…July 18th, 2018. July 6th, 2019. Two in the winter…February 7th, 2019, February 6th, 2020. Each set of dates almost exactly one year apart. These dates are critical to understand the last two playoff runs in the NBA.
On July 18th the Toronto Raptors traded for Kawhi Leonard and set the groundwork for their championship run. Then on February 7th they made the move to trade for big man Marc Gasol. Gasol’s acquisition rounded out the Toronto’s starting lineup and rotation as they made the push for their first championship.
These two newly acquired veterans were paired with longtime Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, rising star Pascal Siakam, and a feisty young guard in Fred VanVleet. This nucleus would push the perennially underperforming Raptors to new heights.
Now none of this would have been possible if not for the excellent stewardship of General Manager Masai Ujiri. Under his leadership the Raptors found a winning combination of homegrown young pieces, veteran roster mainstays, and the acquisition of proven veterans.
Masai procured the weapons and head coach Nick Nurse determined which weapons to wield and how to coordinate their attack. Those Raptors would go on to defeat what remained of the once great Warriors dynasty in 6 games.
Flashforward to July 6th, 2019. The Miami Heat trade for Jimmy Butler. They finally acquired the star — or whale as Pat Riley calls them — they had been hunting. After years of his being criticized as a locker room cancer Butler fit seamlessly into “Heat Culture”. He led the Heat to the 5th seed in the Eastern Conference and proved to be the late game go-to scorer the Heat had been missing since prime Dwyane Wade. In the Bubble Playoffs Jimmy has been excellent. He’s made critical, late-game defensive stops and steals. He’s made big-time contested jumpers and basket attacks to seal wins. “He was the adult in the room,” as Brett Brown said last playoffs and that has been true again — except this season he has other adults working arm-in-arm with him.
The Heat put together the right kind of pieces to make a championship run — at least that was the belief internally. With Hassan Whiteside gone, Bam Adebayo has turned into a star. In his first playoff run as a starter, he’s taken another leap from NBA All-Star to best player on a Conference Finals team. Against the Boston Celtics Bam had several “moments”. In Game 1 Bam got in the first punch when he met Jayson Tatum at the rim and sealed the win for Miami. Then in Game 6 with the Heat sputtering in the 4th quarter and down 96-90, Bam took over the game. He brought the ball up and continually attacked Daniel Theis one-on-one getting shots for himself and others.
Behind their 2 All-stars, former All-Star Goran Dragic has been as hard-nosed and consistent as ever. Now back in a starting role, he’s recaptured his All-Star form. His pick n’ roll game with Bam has been crucial towards Miami’s success — particularly in their dismantling of the number 1 seeded Bucks.
Perhaps the biggest revelation — or glow-up as the kids say — in the playoffs has been 14th pick Tyler Herro. In the 6th man role and 4th quarter closer he’s flashed as not just a niche offensive weapon, but as an offensive engine. He averaged 19 points in the Conference Finals and carried the Heat to a Game 4 win to the tune of 37 points.
February 6th, 2020 is the last key date. The Heat made the move to acquire Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder. Crowder has flourished as a stretch 4. His three point shooting and tough defense has allowed Miami to play small without sacrificing toughness on the interior. The other man in the trade hasn’t had as smooth an integration into the Heat rotation. However, he showed the value of the trade in Game 6 against Boston with a 4-4 performance from beyond the arc and his trademark active hands.
The man shepherding this playoff run deserve their due as well. Eric Spoelstra has been the best coach in the playoffs throughout. He made the difficult decision to bench 2 starters in Meyers Leonard and Kendrick Nunn. He’s put a 20 year old rookie into a position to be a closer in critical playoff moments. He’s adjusted his rotation round-to-round and game-to-game masterfully. And he’s mixed up his defensive coverages between man and zone tormenting the Celtics throughout. Oh and he outcoached 2019 Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer and “ATO god” Brad Stevens.
If Spoelstra is shepherd, then the Godfather is the overseer. He landed Butler with no cap space. He’s drafted 2 franchise cornerstones in Bam and Herro. And he found a way to turn Dion Waiters, James Johnson, and an injured Justise Winslow into Iguodala, Crowder, and Solomon Hill. Nobody has had their hand on the pulse better than Riley has over the last 14 months. He turned a 10th seeded 2019 roster with no cap space, no All-Stars, and disgruntled players into a championship quality team with All-Stars, quality veterans, and playoff contributing young players.
Last season Jimmy Butler went toe-to-toe with Kawhi Leonard and almost bested him. One calendar year later, he’s in a new city and attempting his version of 2019 Kawhi. He’s got his Siakam in Bam. His Lowry in Dragic. His Gasol in Crowder and Iguodala. His VanVleet in Herro. His Nurse in Spoelstra. And his Masai in Riley. The similarities are undeniable. The only thing box left to check. A championship ring.
by Frank Greco (@fgreco12)