You can start here: The Miami Heat ranked last in scoring and and had a negative point differential in the regular season. The last team to be outscored by opponents and make the finals was the 1959 Minneapolis Lakers, and only three teams to finish last in scoring made the playoffs in the last 40 years.
Or start here: They shot 50 percent on 3-pointers in three games of the Eastern Conference finals against Boston. They only did that three times in the 82-game regular season.
But let’s start here in explaining how rare and special a story the Heat are, as they begin play Thursday in Game 1 of these NBA Finals: Caleb Martin averaged 19 points, shot 49 percent on 3-pointers and had 135 points in the series against Boston. That’s the most points in a conference or NBA Finals by an undrafted player since the modern draft began in 1966.
That explains the work, the recognition and the rare quality of this team. Martin stepped in the door two years ago after going undrafted at age 24, then waived by Charlotte and was told by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra he had to learn to play defense to play in the NBA.
Martin remembers the coach saying he’d be the “Chief Complaint Officer” about Martin’s game, too.
“Positioning, techniques, thinking — I had to learn all of that,’’ Martin said. “I had to learn parts of the game all over in some ways.”
Same for Max Strus and Gabe Vincent, the other undrafted players now in the Heat’s starting lineup. That introduces another first in Game 1: No finals team has started three undrafted players.
So, does all this help? Does it explain how they’re a special, even historic group just reaching this series?
It’s trendy in sports or business for competitors to copy a winning organization’s model. Good luck making a draft pick or signing a player to follow the Heat’s model. It’s a year-after-year process through the entire organization, from the developmental league to after practices, under the label of Heat Culture.
Here’s a story: When Duncan Robinson came in the door as a nobody, a whisper of undrafted hope, he was put through a routine every pre-game.
He sat on the bench during warmups, went to the empty scorer’s table as if to check in a game and immediately ran a play for his shot against an imaginary defense.
An assistant passed him the ball for his shot at the 3-point line. If the shot went in, another imaginary play was run for him and another pass given for another shot.
If he missed, he went back to the bench and repeated the process.
“It’s something to get me ready to play,’’ Robinson said.
Then came Phase II after he became such a 3-point specialist: Building out his game. Namely, learning to move to the basket in a manner he’s done effectively these playoffs.
“We needed Duncan to be able to put the ball on the floor and be able to back-cut and all this stuff and correct that and try to get everybody synergistic,’’ Spoelstra said. “That takes some time.”
It took added time to get the team’s lone big man, Bam Adebayo, comfortable with handling the ball and passing it to a driving cutter like Robinson.
“It’s like five years of just [teachings of author] Malcolm Gladwell, the 10,000 hour rule; this is 10,000 hours of drilling with those two guys a long time ago, forever,’’ Spoelstra said, referring to the theory that 10,000 hours of practice is needed to be very successful at complex tasks. “And initially it was all dribble hand-offs, that kind of trigger, and then we needed Bam to be also a scorer … but this is the constant evolution of two guys trying to get it right, and knowing that there has to be improvement in that two-man action.”
I’ve written before this is a Team of Spoelstras, considering most of them worked their way up from the bottom, just as the coach did from the video room to the top of his game. Even Jimmy Butler had no college offers out of high school, went to junior college, was drafted in the no-man’s-land of the 31st pick and was given up on by three NBA teams.
Now he’s the Heat’s lone, proven star. That’s why they’re the strong underdog again this series. No team reaches the Finals with one star. You need the Big Three, or the Three Amigos, or the Splash Brothers. Yet here the Heat are making something happen that never happens in the NBA. Game 1. Enjoy.