The Miami Heat feel like Riley’s ’90s Knicks

The Miami Heat feel like Riley’s ’90s Knicks

Victor Oladipo and Jimmy Butler aren’t here for any bullshit.
Image: Getty Images

The Miami Heat are the only NBA contender built like a UFC promotion. Knowing that it was inevitable that Heat culture nearly turned that energy inward during a lousy loss to the Golden State Warriors. Udonis Haslem threatening to beat Jimmy Butler’s ass and Eric Spoelstra asking if Butler wanted to “fight him” is the elixir that keeps team President Pat Riley young. Why else would he keep assembling these backyard brawler squads?

Stylistically and personality-wise, this mix of players is the closest match to the DNA of Riley’s most pugnacious 90s Knicks teams than any we’ve seen in the last three decades. Put a mirror up and Kyle Lowry, Udonis Haslem, Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and P.J. Tucker resemble pseudo-clones of Anthony Mason, John Starks, Patrick Ewing, Mark Jackson and Charles Oakley.

Thirty years ago, Anthony Mason rocked Xavier McDaniel’s chin during his first training camp and set the Knicks’ tone for the rest of the decade. This Heat squad has captured that same mix of ethanol and gasoline in a bottle without a true superstar in the fold. Jimmy Butler has never punched an opponent, but the infamous practice against Karl-Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins where Butler called them soft and proved it on the court is the stuff of legend.

Udonis Haslem spent much of his Heat career as the Oakley to Dwyane Wade’s Jordan. He’s just here to set screens, box out, and potentially box if any whippersnapper steps out of line. It’s nearly been a year since his infamous three minutes, four points, one rebound, one ejection performance against the Philadelphia 76ers. Soon after, Miami rewarded him with another one-year contract so he could return for his 18th season.

After the two-year, $30 million extension they gave Andre Iguodala in 2020 expired, Miami signed P.J. Tucker to a 2-year, $14 million contract. Tucker is a 6-foot-5 micro-ball center who averages single digit points and plays basketball like a Monster truck. Tucker is either tussling in a cloud of dust on the floor or drilling one or two corner 3s a night.

Markieff Morris missed 58 games due to whiplash, stemming from an incident in which he committed a hard foul on Nikola Jokić and didn’t keep his head on a swivel when the reigning MVP retaliated. In the aftermath, Markieff’s twin brother, Marcus, promised revenge, which prompted the Jokić brothers to join Twitter and inform him they wanted all the smoke.

Miami Heat rotation players don’t have highlight videos. They have fight compilations.

Both teams needed a rabble rouser too. John Starks had one of the more punchable faces of the 90s, and he used that skill to bait opponents into doing so.The G-League gave Riley access to a whole host of John Starkses. Most haven’t been as obnoxious, but they’ve found spirited guards who can mix it up and won’t back down.

In 2015, he discovered Tyler Johnson, who repeatedly had his teeth dislodged during practice and games. The Heat have turned to their former two-way contract players Max Strus and Gabe Vincent this season. Strus played in 47 of the 49 games he was available for before the All-Star break, and Vincent played in 50 of the 54 games he was available for.

The ’94 Knicks, who came one win away from being crowned NBA champions, were one of the six lowest-scoring teams in the entire NBA. Riley constructed teams are here to bully and ball. If the Heat emerge from the East, it will be because their hand-to-hand combat All-Stars hoisted the rest of the league up a flagpole by their draws.

Miami’s defense ranks fifth in points per 100 possessions and defends the paint better than any team in the league. Beating Miami requires hot shooting from outside.

Miami has committed more fouls this season than 25 other teams and has drawn nearly double the charges of any team in the NBA.

They may seem like a primitive squad built to win in the ’90s, but if you wanna get into a long-distance contest with the Heat, they can do that too. Miami is shooting a league-best 37.3 percent beyond the arc even though Butler has been a 20 percent shooter from 3-point range all season.

Center Bam Adebayo is built like a defensive end but switches like a safety on the perimeter. That and the fact that his nickname was Bam are likely the only two things Riley needed to see in his scouting report to draft Adebayo in 2017.

Those Knicks were renowned for their scrappiness, but they couldn’t finish the job. Riley’s won with superstar-laden teams stacked to the brim with Hall of Famers like Shaq, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Magic, Kareem and LeBron, but he’s proving a point with this Heat team.

Two years ago, Miami reached the Finals by thriving in the confines of the bubble. This season, they have a slim grip on the No. 1 seed in the East after a 2-game skid. In a superstar-driven league, the Heat’s hard-nosed culture has thrived in a cosmopolitan megalopolis.

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.