The Miami Heat represent a fascinating dichotomy. On one hand, they’re the organization that officially ushered in super-teams; a big market, at least in feel, inextricably linked to the most fast-tracked NBA title blueprint of recruiting, and landing, the biggest names in the game. They’ve won three championships and gone to five Finals on the backs of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Shaquille O’Neal. 

On the other hand, the Heat are renowned for their ability to identify and acquire, develop and ultimately rely upon relative no-names, small market at heart, more blue-collar grind than South Beach glitz. This year’s team that has the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks on the ropes has landed perfectly in the middle. They have their superstar in Jimmy Butler and another All-Star in Bam Adebayo. They also depend heavily on the equity they’ve accumulated in the margins. 

Miami’s myriad successes with undrafted players have been well chronicled. Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn and Derrick Jones Jr. are all contributing, to varying degrees, to what the Heat are doing right now. Rookie Tyler Herro, who slipped to Miami at No. 13 in the draft, wasn’t exactly a no-name coming out of Kentucky, but to say people thought he’d be initiating offense as a central cog in the closing lineup of a championship contender would be a stretch. If teams could do the 2019 draft over, Herro might well go in the top three. 

But it’s not just young players Miami is maximizing right now. It’s the forgotten veterans, too. Which brings us to Goran Dragic and Jae Crowder, both of whom have been nothing short of remarkable as part of this heretofore unexpected postseason run. All the more wild, Miami could easily be without both of them. 

If you’ll recall, the Heat tried to trade Dragic to the Dallas Mavericks last offseason to make salary room for Butler. Miami thought the deal was done. Dragic was gone. But the Mavs thought they were getting Jones Jr. and Kelly Olynyk, a fortuitous miscommunication as it happened for Miami. Dallas pulled out of the deal at the last second, and the Heat found another way to clear room for Butler by sending Hassan Whiteside to the Blazers as a part of a four-team deal that brought back Meyers Leonard, who started for Miami all year and played well but has been relegated to cheerleader in the bubble. 

Nobody thought much of the potential implications when Dragic stayed in Miami. It was a footnote in the convoluted story of how Butler wound up with the Heat. Now Dragic is averaging almost 22 points per game in the playoffs as Miami’s starting point guard. The Heat are plus-9.1 in his minutes (just under 35 a game), which is the second-highest mark on the team to Adebayo. 

“The ultimate team guy,” an Eastern Conference scout told CBS Sports when asked to describe Dragic’s value to Miami. “He got moved to the bench, which is something a lot of veterans wouldn’t accept, but he took that in stride, never b–ched to the media, and now Erik [Spoelstra] calls his number in the playoffs and he’s showing he can still be an impact starter on a high level.” 

Dragic was inserted into the postseason starting lineup for Nunn, who was getting back up to speed after recovering from COVID-19, and there’s no chance you’re getting him out of the lineup now. He was sensational in Miami’s first-round sweep of the Pacers, and he has diced up Milwaukee’s top-ranked defense by living in the soft spots of their big-dropping scheme. 

In the clips below, watch how Dragic gets into the lane and — rather than pressing his luck all the way to the rim, which the Bucks are programmed to protect — consistently pulls up just short of Milwaukee’s retreating defenders with an array of feathery releases. 

Crowder, meanwhile, has been a revelation. When the Heat made their mid-season trade with the Grizzlies, Andre Iguodala was the prize. Initially, the Heat sought to involve Oklahoma City in a three-team deal that would’ve brought Danilo Gallinari to Miami as well, but that didn’t work out, at which point Miami got back with Memphis and expanded the trade to include James Johnson and Dion Waiters, who the Heat were thrilled to offload, in exchange for Solomon Hill and Crowder joining Iguodala in Miami. 

It’s not to say Crowder was a complete afterthought. He’s a known quantity, and you’d be hard pressed to find a non-Heat player that felt more like a “Heat guy.” But Iguodala, again, was the point of that deal. Adding Crowder, while unloading the Johnson and Waiters salaries that had been jamming Miami’s books for years, was gravy. 

“The way it looks right now, Crowder might’ve been the most important part of that trade [for Miami],” the same Eastern Conference scout told CBS. “He fits right into what they do. You look at him and Iguodala, they’re both versatile guys, can guard multiple spots. But Crowder’s a better shooter, and that really gives Erik [Spoelstra] a lot of flexibility because if you look at Miami’s two best guys, Bam [Adebayo] and Butler, neither of those guys are great shooters. So you really need three shooters around them, and [Duncan] Robinson is one, but he’s not a defender. So to have a guy like Crowder who can not only space the floor but also defend at a high level, that’s huge.”

Against Milwaukee, Crowder is averaging 15 points a game on 43-percent 3-point shooting. And we’re not talking about a small sample size. Crowder is shooing more than 10 threes a game. He isn’t just spacing the floor and shooting when the ball finds him; he’s hunting shots — coming off picks, trailing in transition, etc. His aggression to score, along with Dragic and Herro, has taken Miami’s offense from a cast of complementary characters in support of Butler’s lone-star creation to a true multi-threat attack for which the Bucks have had no effective answer. 

And we haven’t even gotten to Crowder’s defense yet. 

Guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo hasn’t been a one-man job for the Heat; Crowder and Adebayo are sharing the main individual assignment, Iguodala has seen some time, but everyone is one switch away. The Heat are forming something of a bubble around Antetokounmpo, multiple bodies softly flanking the on-ball defender, ready to pinch off Giannis’ lane with a sort of sliding-doors effect should he look to put his head down and drive. Giannis always has multiple defenders in his vision, but the work Crowder — who is also spending a lot of time on Khris Middleton — is doing before the ball even reaches Antetokounmpo is setting up Miami’s defensive possessions to succeed from the start. 

This is subtle, but in the clip below, put your eye on Crowder and Giannis, initially positioned on the weak-side block. As Crowder is cross screened, Giannis comes baseline with the intention of catching a post-entry pass on the strong-side block, but Crowder, who is unwilling to concede anything, battles through the screen and cuts through the paint to meet Giannis at his desired spot. The two literally collide, and Crowder is so strong that he knocks Giannis a good three feet farther out than he’d anticipated catching the ball. 

Everyone will pay attention to Crower moving his feet and drawing a charge to cap that play, and indeed that is big-time defense. But it all started with Crowder making Giannis catch the ball farther out than he wanted to, which is something Miami has collectively and consistently been doing throughout this series. 

You hear about great scorers “getting to their spots” and this is what it means. The block is one of Giannis’ spots. Once he gets it that low, he’s virtually unstoppable one on one. He’s too long. Too strong. Too close to the basket. You’re going to have to bring a double team, which opens up ball reversals and rotations and all manner of potential defensive dysfunction. 

By fighting for those extra few feet before the pass is made, which is the part nobody notices, Crowder puts himself in a position to guard Giannis straight up and eventually make the play that everyone will talk about. These are the subtleties of a prideful, veteran defender who’s not only going to use his physical strength but also his brain to do his part in limiting the likely back-to-back MVP. 

Here’s another clip that speaks to Crowder’s defensive prowess that will only show up in the box score as a rebound. 

Crowder could’ve screwed that play up at three different spots. First, when Giannis flips the ball to Wes Matthews and continues right into a pick-and-roll (he actually slips the screen), Crowder could’ve gravitated to Matthews (who he can assume has a good chance to beat Robinson off the dribble), or even just lingered in the lane a beat too long and left an easy dump-off pass to Giannis for a sure dunk. But he didn’t do that. He knew his assignment. Stay with Giannis. That might sound obvious, but in the heat of the moment, ball-watching instincts can take over, even for just a split second, and that’s all it takes. 

Watch the clip again, and you’ll see that as the play develops and Matthews gets into the lane, it would, for a second time, be easy for Crowder to come off Giannis to help, but again that’s exactly what the Bucks want, as that will leave a simple lob pass to Giannis for a dunk. Crowder, instead, stunts at Matthews but gets right back to Giannis. That’s two times he did his job. And by doing so, the Bucks end up with a 6-foot-5, un-athletic Mathews trying to finish a contested shot at the rim because their primary plans to get the ball to the most devastating dunker in the world were foiled twice by simple disciplined defense. 

Then Crowder boxes out and gets the rebound. 

And that’s not to understate the punctuation of that defensive possession. You can play great, smart defense right up until the last second, and if Giannis gets that rebound, it was all for naught. Crowder used his brain to keep Antetokounmpo from getting the ball off a pass, then his braun to keep him off the glass to close the deal. 

That possession was in the first minute of the first game of the series. Nobody will remember that. But it set a tone, for that game and for the series as a whole. Miami has had Giannis’ number thanks to a collective, focused effort every step of the way. Enough details added up becomes a whole story of how the Heat are collectively frustrating the best regular-season team and player in the NBA. 

Crowder has been central to all of it, on both ends. After he left Boston, a lot of people forgot how good he could be. He flamed out with LeBron James in Cleveland. He didn’t make enough shots in Utah or Memphis. In Miami, he’s finally back to Boston Crowder, shooting better that 44 percent from three over 20 games with defense like we just illustrated. 

And here the Heat are one win from upsetting the top-seeded Bucks and advancing to the conference semifinals against the prediction of just about every “expert” out there, including myself. Butler and Adebayo are the stars, but without Crowder and Dragic, alongside a lot of other “do your job” professional ballplayers that a lot of other teams either forgot about or never cared about in the first place, Miami wouldn’t be in this position. 

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