Credit: Bill Moore photo

Last night, the NBA began its most unique Finals in the 74 year history of the league. The schedule officially listed the Western Conference champion Los Angeles Lakers as the home team and the Miami Heat, representing the Eastern Conference, as the visitors. However, the designations are just theoretical.

In actuality, the best-of-seven series is being played at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, situated within the expansive 25,000 acre Walt Disney World Resort in Bay Lake, Florida, 23 miles from Orlando. It is where the NBA resumed its season in late July after being shut down in August due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prior to the start of the season, the Lakers were the second highest favorite on almost all sports betting lines to make it to the Finals, trailing only the Los Angeles Clippers. Conversely, the Heat were 14th, considered a long shot to be where they are today. Other than forward Jimmy Butler, they didn’t have a single player on their roster who was considered to be on the league’s upper tiers. Thirty-four-year old guard Goran Dragic, a 2018 All-Star and All NBA Third Team in 2014, while still a very good player, was no longer at that level.

Heat president Pat Riley had assembled a team of veteran role players, promising young talent, and a proven star in Butler, who was acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers in a four-team trade last July and subsequently signed a four-year, $142 million contract with Miami. On paper, the Heat was a well constructed playoff contender but not Finals built. The NBA bubble changed that. In many ways, it equalized the prospects of teams that weren’t top seeds entering the restart. Rust, players opting out of the bubble, the emotional capital invested in the nationwide racial justice movement, and varying motivation among individual players altered the dynamics.

Yet prior to the league’s postponement, under the tutelage of Heat head coach Eric Spoelstra, a future Hall of Famer, the duo of rookie guards Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro developed into impact players and were ultimately named to the NBA All-Rookie First and Second Team respectively. Local product Bam Adebayo, a third-year forward from Newark, New Jersey, became Miami’s second All-Star as well as one of the sport’s best defenders, making the NBA All-Defensive Second Team this season.

Veterans Jae Crowder and Dragic provided leadership and output. Twenty-six-year-old former G-League standout Duncan Robinson emerged as a reliable three-point shooter who stretched the floor and Butler was well…Butler. A consummate alpha dog, Butler is the epitome of a player that operates with a chip on his shoulder. He has had to grind for everything in his 31 years of life, including living with multiple friends as a teenager in the Houston, Texas area after the 13-year-old Butler was kicked out of his home by his mother.

The urgency, intensity and ferocity with which he plays is unsurpassed. Butler, who attended Tyler Community College in Texas before two years at Marquette, has willed himself into a five-time All-Star and three-time All NBA Third-Team honoree. Still, his challenge in lifting the Heat over the Lakers will be daunting. Butler and the Heat are facing the preeminent basketball alpha dog of this generation in LeBron James.

While it’s arguable this season will neither add to nor detract from James’ legacy given the unprecedented circumstances, his hunger for a fourth title and first since 2016 when he led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a championship is ravenous. The Heat has revealed themselves to be versatile offensively with Herro evolving into an explosive three-level scorer, and pliant defensively, frequently employing a bothersome zone in their Eastern Conference semifinal win over the Boston Celtics. They aren’t a Cinderella. The Heat is real.

The prediction here is the Heat in six.