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Beware of the underdog Heat, who have the chemistry and blueprint to beat the Lakers

Heat center Bam Adebayo, left, and Celtics forward Grant Williams (12) battle for a rebound during Game 6 on Sept. 27, 2020.
Heat center Bam Adebayo, left, and Celtics forward Grant Williams (12) battle for a rebound during Game 6 on Sunday night.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

One night earlier, staffers with plastic face shields covering their masked mouths scampered on both baselines, waiting for the cue to fire off the confetti cans that rained down onto the Western Conference champion Lakers.

Sunday, that same cue — the final buzzer — came but the shredded paper didn’t fall. It could have if the winning team wanted.

Meet the Miami Heat — the team that said “No.”

After beating the Boston Celtics 125-113 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Heat are ready to be introduced to Lakers fans. But you might already know them (and not just the guy with the slicked-back hair, Pat Riley, who put them together).

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A Lakers team built on the backs of two of the NBA’s most dominant stars will face an underdog group that was stronger as a collective than as individuals, and whose culture and identity are as valuable as jumpers and slam dunks — just like the Lakers did in 2004 against the Detroit Pistons.

Although Frank Vogel wasn’t the Lakers’ first or second choice for head coach, he proved to be the right choice, writes columnist Helene Elliott.

That season, Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton were good enough together to beat a Lakers team with four future Hall of Famers, to stare down Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone and Gary Payton.

On Wednesday, the Lakers will meet the Heat, a team that’s beaten higher-seeded teams in each of the playoffs’ three rounds because of a not-so-secret weapon.

“Together,” Heat star Jimmy Butler said. “That’s how we were able to do it.”

The Heat earned the right to be underdogs in the NBA Finals against the Lakers by going through Indiana, Milwaukee and Boston.

They did by betting on Butler, a star who left three previous franchises worse off than when he got there. His leadership style was controversial and not universally embraced. And to teams with salary-cap room last summer — like the Lakers and Clippers — Butler wasn’t a top priority.

Celtics guard Marcus Smart, left, defends against Heat guard Jimmy Butler.
Celtics guard Marcus Smart, left, defends against Heat guard Jimmy Butler during Miami’s series-clinching victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday.
(Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

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“That’s what this whole thing comes down to is being wanted, being appreciated for what you bring to the table,” Butler said. “And as I’ve said time and time again, as [coach Erik Spoelstra] constantly says, ‘We’re not for everybody.’ I’m not for everybody, but here, I am.

“The guys we have, we’re for one another. We’re going to constantly compete for one another, and this is home for me.”

He’s surrounded by a younger star in Bam Adebayo, who turned in a Game 6 performance that more than made up for his Game 5 clunker, his 10 points and seven rebounds in the fourth quarter the result of an unrelenting force too much for Boston to handle. Goran Dragic is on the backside of his peak, but he’s proved all postseason that he still can be a difference maker, a former All-Star guard who can dial back and look like one again for stretches.

And there’s the rest of the cast — Andre Iguodala’s sage championship experience, Tyler Herro’s confident scoring, Duncan Robinson’s shot-making and Jae Crowder’s all-around game.

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Highlights from the Miami Heat’s victory over the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday.

Those seven players did all of Miami’s scoring Sunday, led by Adebayo’s 32 points and 22 from Butler.

Defensively, though, is where the Heat can give teams problems. They’ll use a bunch of different looks, including plenty of zone. And while they’re not as tall as the Lakers, they’re probably big enough to not be bullied.

“They’re super physical, super tough, very, very savvy,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said.

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Stevens called the Heat a “handful,” just like those 2004 Pistons were — a team that could dominate pace and find ways to negate its gaps in talent with commitment to one another and selflessness. Led by Billups, the Pistons were the kind of team that would go flying over the front row at Staples Center to chase a loose ball because it might help them win. Tayshaun Prince’s length, Rasheed Wallace’s swagger, Hamilton’s smooth style, Ben Wallace’s fury and Billups’ savvy pushed the Pistons past the Lakers’ talent.

Following a decade that included six years of wandering outside the playoffs, the Lakers have finally returned home with a berth in the NBA Finals.

The Heat are built from the same DNA and Butler is the perfect leader.

“Everybody in the league has always known that he impacts winning. It’s not about stats. It’s not about anything else. He cares,” Spoelstra said. “And for us, that’s our language.”

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And the 2004 Pistons spoke it fluently.


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