It has been an inexplicable downfall for the Miami Heat in just the span of a year. Despite bringing back most of the core members of their 53-win, first-seeded 2021-22 team, time has not been kind to the Heat’s veteran roster, as they are now one loss away from seeing a premature end to their season. The loss of PJ Tucker was huge for sure, given his grit and locker-room presence, but surely a team led by Jimmy Butler could weather his absence, no?
In the end, it seems like the Heat’s opportunistic roster building is catching up to them. The Heat front office may have had a penchant for unearthing some diamonds in the rough in the past, but it’s looking like those talents are stagnating, failing to provide Butler the requisite help he needs.
Jimmy Butler, of course, has to show up as well. Butler has built a reputation over the years of being an outstanding playoff performer, mostly due to his work in the 2020 NBA bubble, but when he’s off, he’s truly off. Against the Atlanta Hawks, Butler was not on point, looking more like his 2021 playoff self rather than the customary Playoff Jimmy Heat fans have come to love over the years.
But Butler, as was the case in 2020 and 2022, cannot do it all on his own, especially with the decline in the play of the Heat’s role players. This certain player, in particular, will have to find his 2021-22 level in a win or go home matchup against the Chicago Bulls in the 2023 NBA play-in tournament, especially with the Heat finding it difficult to put the ball through the hoop.
Here is the Heat’s biggest X-factor as they find themselves in danger of falling out of the playoff picture entirely.
Heat’s biggest X-factor vs. Bulls: Max Strus
Speaking of the Heat’s penchant for finding hidden gems from the G-League or the undrafted pool, Max Strus became yet another testament to their ability to bring out the best in undervalued players. Strus slowly played his way into a bigger role on the Heat rotation, and he eventually usurped Duncan Robinson — yet another undrafted pickup — as Miami’s designated three-point rover.
Strus ended the 2021-22 season having shot 41 percent from deep, and he eventually played in and started all 18 Heat playoff games last year. He may not have had the best time shooting the basketball during the 2022 playoffs, but his defense and hustle clearly endeared him to head coach Erik Spoelstra, which eventually led to Robinson’s exclusion from the rotation.
However, Max Strus hasn’t had the best 2022-23 season. His three-point efficiency has declined steeply amid the increased defensive attention he draws, and he was certainly nowhere to be found during their 2023 NBA play-in tournament game against the Hawks.
Against the Hawks, Strus stunk up the joint, making just one of his five three-point attempts on the night in 24 minutes of play. The Heat instead opted to roll with Caleb Martin as they tried (and failed) to mount a comeback.
But against the Bulls, a team that has leaned into a defense-first identity throughout the 2022-23 season, the Heat will need their shot creators and sharpshooters to be on point. And given the trust Strus has earned from the Heat coaching staff, he’s a lock to play a 20+ minute role, which makes every shot of his crucial if they were to become the Eastern Conference’s eight-seed.
Strus, however, has gone ice cold from the field before in crucial games, and if that happens, the Heat’s struggling offense will find scoring to be an even more difficult endeavor.
There are plenty of candidates for the distinction of being the Heat’s biggest X-factor against the Bulls. Bam Adebayo, the Heat’s second-best player, will have to play better, his desire for more offensive touches notwithstanding.
Adebayo will have to be more resolute on the defensive glass after the Hawks (specifically Clint Capela) pummeled them over and over again on the offensive boards. The Bulls will have a few players (Nikola Vucevic, Patrick Beverley, Andre Drummond) who will crash the glass with reckless abandon, so Adebayo, by virtue of being the Heat’s paint anchor, will have to be a more indefatigable force on the interior.
Meanwhile, Gabe Vincent and Victor Oladipo will have to bounce back; Vincent, in particular, should be doing more despite being a placeholder in the Heat’s starting lineup. Duncan Robinson and Kevin Love could be in for some minutes as well if the Heat really need to grease the wheels on offense.
But in the end, Max Strus is Miami’s second-biggest threat from beyond the arc (after Tyler Herro). As is the case in today’s NBA, winning the three-point battle will go a long way towards winning the game — especially a contest between two defense-first teams.