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Exits: Just feel it
SI's Rohan Nadkarni on when it's better to scream than to try and make sense of something.
When Jimmy Butler pulled up a second time to shoot what he thought was a three (his foot was on the line) late in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the Heat’s jaw-dropping comeback win against the Bucks in Round 1 of the 2023 Playoffs, I screamed.
I screamed before the shot even went in. I screamed so loud I scared my dog, who jumped off my lap, ran around the living room and eventually had to lick my face just to calm down. My 85-year-old grandmother slowly but surely emerged from her room, wondering what all the commotion was.
There was no way to explain it succinctly with words. That Butler was thoroughly outplaying two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo on his way to 56 points. That Butler never pulls up for jumpers, let alone threes. That the Heat, the eighth seed in the conference who only snuck into the playoffs after a desperate comeback against the Bulls in the second play-in game, were on the verge of taking a 3–1 lead over the No. 1 seed in the entire playoffs.
There was no sense in trying to make sense of what was happening. The scream was practically involuntary. A guttural roar that was the only way to express how inexplicable the series of events unfolding in front of me were.
In the lead up to the release of the movie Oppenheimer, director Christopher Nolan gave an interview with a French news outlet. The interview — seriously — involved Nolan hitting a giant red button to stop a televised roulette wheel of emojis, with each signifying a different line of questioning. Behind one of the emojis was a tweet, which Nolan was meant to react to. The tweet read: “My life is like a Christopher Nolan movie. I don’t really understand what’s going on.” To which Nolan responded, rather eloquently, “Don’t try to understand it. Just feel it.”
This is a rather profound statement. I would say it’s a great philosophy for all of life generally. And for the purposes of what we’re doing here, especially for the 2023 Miami Heat season.
This thing was a fucking slog. I know many fans who wanted the whole thing to end, and end quickly by the time of the Play In. A loss to Chicago wouldn’t have been celebrated, but it would have provided relief. A respite from watching a team that couldn’t quite escape the banality of average for the 84 games it played in before the playoffs.
Then all of a sudden the Heat stole Game 1 in Milwaukee. Then a rout in Game 3. Then the best game of Butler’s life in Game 4. Then another absurd comeback in Game 5. Then they took care of the Knicks. Then they won three straight vs. Boston. Then they lost three straight. Then they won a Game 7 on the road. And then the thens finally stopped against a Nuggets team too talented to let the Finals slip away.
While all this was going on, I saw so many people try their hardest to make sense of the Heat’s Finals run. It was all three-point shooting! Giannis was hurt! Mike Budenholzer didn’t call timeout! Miami was too hot for the Knicks! Malcolm Brogdon was hurt! Jimmy Butler only tries in the playoffs!
My reaction to all the theories then, now and forever was and will be: Who cares?
I am not here to debate the degrees of truth in each explanation for Miami’s surprise Finals run. Only to say that trying to understand it seems like a miserable way to enjoy the sport. You know what Jimmy Butler was almost certainly not thinking about when he tried to shoot that second step back three over Jrue Holiday? His career three-point shooting percentage. He just felt it.
The Heat especially have defied reason since Butler joined the team in 2019. Their run to the Finals in 2020 also included a massive upset over a one-seeded Bucks team as well as a hard-fought win over the Celtics. In both runs to the championship round — and when Miami pushed Boston to seven games in the 2022 Conference Finals — nobody expected the Heat to make it as far as they did. And every run has generated excuses. The Bubble wasn’t real. The shooters can’t keep shooting like this. Caleb Martin isn’t actually Michael Jordan. I don’t understand what these people want. Do you prefer the game is played to everyone’s averages every single night? That nothing out of the ordinary happens? That everything goes according to plan? Of course the Heat don’t make sense when you compare them to what they’ve been on a piece of paper. But when you watch Jimmy Butler will himself into a new plane of hoop existence, or Erik Spoelstra cook up a new defense, or an undrafted player who doesn’t like being called undrafted hit big shot after big shot, the idea of “what makes sense” becomes meaningless.
It’s so much more fun to feel than understand. Even the bad feelings. It was excruciating watching the Heat’s grip on the conference finals slip away. Derrick White’s Game 6 buzzer beater felt like taking a punch to the gut from the Hulk. But it only added to the thrill of the Game 7 win, a series victory that ultimately tasted much, much sweeter than had it been a sweep.
This is my plea to everyone. Sure, it’s okay to seek understanding of why we’re watching things unfold the way they are. For many of us, it’s the nature of our jobs. But damn, don’t let that stop you from feeling all of it too. It’s a game! It’s entertainment! It’s not all perfect. And it’s not all a fantasy world either. Just don’t get caught up in “regression to the mean” talk when something beautiful is happening right in front of you. Yes, it was reasonable to say a number of Heat players needed to continue playing over their heads for the team to succeed in the playoffs. When your criticism of the team, though, is “These guys are making way more shots than they normally do!,” well, shouldn’t they have been trying to do that? It may have been atypical for Caleb Martin to hit four threes and drop 26 on the Celtics in a road Game 7, but I’d rather never understand how he summoned something special in the biggest moment of his life and enjoy the fact that he did it, as opposed to penciling him in for his season averages before the game.
The 2023 playoffs were, arguably, the most fun you could ask for if you were a Heat fan. It doesn’t matter now and it didn’t then if the team was actually great, if the run was a fluke, or if what happened will never be repeated. Did you remember to feel it? Do you really want an explanation for how an eight-seed that couldn’t play offense for 84 games barged into the Finals with a bunch of undrafted role players? You can try as hard as you want to put the Heat’s run into words and numbers.
Or you can scream.
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