By the middle of this week, four teams will be left standing in the NBA's bubble in Central Florida - and the team from the closest city might be the biggest surprise there.
The Miami Heat will tip off their Eastern Conference Finals series Tuesday against the Boston Celtics after winning eight of their first nine playoff games played in the first two series.
For a team that started the season with plenty of question marks and entered the postseason as the fifth seed, there are plenty around the nation scratching their heads trying to figure out how they arrived to this point - but none are part of the group playing for the 'Heat culture' that has bought into team president Pat Riley's and head coach Erik Spoelstra's plan.
Building The Foundation
After a 39-43 season in 2018-19 that saw Miami being knocked out of playoff contention in the second to last game of the season, the Heat were in a position most teams on the wrong side of a .500 record find themselves in: rebuilding.
From the outside, Miami's offseason started with finding the next leader on and off the court due to legendary Heat superstar Dwyane Wade calling it a career. By mid-July, Miami had a solid young nucleus in place thanks in part to drafting rookie guard Tyler Herro out of Kentucky.
"It's a dream come true," Herro said in his June 2019 onstage televised interview with ESPN. "I can't believe that I'm standing here with a Miami Heat hat on, walking across the stage. I mean, it's a true blessing."
Shortly after the draft, Miami was part of a four team trade that included bringing in forward Meyers Leonard from Portland, while sending often injured center Hassan Whiteside to the west coast.
The highlight of that trade? The Heat making the biggest move of basketball's offseason in a sign-and-trade deal that gave All-Star forward Jimmy Butler $142 million reasons to leave Philadelphia and make Miami his new home.
Season Start and Drastic Halt
When the Heat tipped things off, Miami's regular season was highlighted by a five game win streak in November. When the calendar hit the year 2020, the team's record mostly went hot and cold when it came to results.
After a four game winning streak, Miami lost a road game at New Orleans and took a road victory over Washington into their March 11th game with Charlotte inside the AmericanAirlines Arena.
The Heat would get blown out in the game, losing 109-98 in what would be the final pro basketball game that would be played before the coronavirus pandemic placed the entire NBA season on hold.
“We just have to sit back and observe and monitor the situation," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game.
It would be weeks before the Heat would return to the court for practice, a time that saw several players confirmed to have COVID-19 including Derrick Jones, Jr.
Months later, Miami would join over 20 other NBA teams in taking part in the league's bubble held at Walt Disney World near Orlando.
After going 3-5 in the remaining eight games of the rescheduled season, Miami went into the postseason wondering if they had what it took to make a playoff push.
Butler would end the regular season as Miami's leader in points scored, assists and steals while blossoming forward Bam Adebayo led the team in both rebounds and blocks.
The Heat made quick work of the Indiana Pacers in the opening playoff series with a sweep, led by 23 points from Dragic in the Game 4 win.
“One hundred percent I think we can get to another gear,” Adebayo said. “And that’s everybody here. This next series might be different. We might need to have different schemes.”
Miami found that gear and would end up shocking many in the basketball world with an upset win over the top seeded Milwaukee Bucks in the second round - and now has the confidence that they can make it back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2014.
“We want people to continue to count us out," Butler said.
Familiar Recent Foes
Miami now faces a Celtics team they dropped two out of three games against during the regular season, winning their one meeting in the NBA bubble.
After the Celtics made two appearances in the NBA Finals last decade, Miami has been the more familiar name in the postseason during this decade. The Heat have won both playoff series between the teams, including an epic six game series in the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2011-12 season.
"We want to win ‘it.' We want a championship and I think that's what we're focused on. These next eight are going to be much harder than the previous eight. We know that. But we're ready for them," Butler added after the Game 5 win over Milwaukee.
Tipoff for Game 1 is at 6:30 p.m. with the winner of the series facing either the Los Angeles Lakers or the winner of the series between the Los Angeles Clippers or the Denver Nuggets.