The Miami Heat knew going into this season that big-name free-agent signee Jimmy Butler would be their star. What they didn't expect, at least not in year one with this group, was for third-year center Bam Adebayo to become just as important, if not more so, for a team that on Sunday night closed out the Boston Celtics to reach the NBA Finals.
"He's the heart and soul of this thing, he really is," Butler said. "I keep saying it, but he's going to be the reason we win a championship."
Adebayo took over at both ends of the floor in the fourth quarter to outlast the Celtics. He finished with a career-high 32 points—10 in the fourth quarter—along with 14 rebounds and five assists.
Just 48 hours before, Adebayo blamed himself for the Heat's Game 5 collapse. On Sunday, he powered them past Boston at Walt Disney World Resort, where they'll face the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals. That team will be led by LeBron James, who played for the Heat the last time the franchise made it this far, four seasons in a row from 2011 to '14.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has asked Adebayo to take the toughest assignments in each playoff series due to his ability to defend both on the perimeter and in the paint. He will have to spend time in the Finals on both James and Anthony Davis.
It will be his toughest task yet, but he's been ready for everything this playoff run has thrown at him so far.
"I love the fact that he wants that pressure," Butler said after the game. "He wants all that on his shoulders. That's why he's the heart and soul of this team. He's one of our leaders. That's what stars do. He's put himself on the map since coming into the league. He's huge for us, will continue to be that for us. He knows how special he has to play in these next four wins."
As much so as Butler, the Heat have gone as Adebayo has during this run. In the Eastern Conference Finals series, the Heat outscored the Celtics by 2.5 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court and were outscored by 5.5 points per 100 possessions when he sat.
Overall for their playoff run, which has also included a first-round sweep of the Indiana Pacers and a five-game win in the second round over the No. 1-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, the Heat have outscored their opponents by 8.2 points per 100 possessions with Adebayo on the court and been outscored by 3.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench.
"The world is just getting introduced to Bam," Spoelstra said. "But I feel like I've been through 50-plus playoff games with him, because we've been scratching and crawling for our playoff lives the last two years. He's been every bit a part of that struggle trying to get into the playoffs."
Like the rest of the Heat's core players—Butler, rookie Tyler Herro, second-year guard Duncan Robinson, veteran point guard Goran Dragic—Adebayo wasn't a top-10 pick. He went 14th overall in the 2017 draft. The Heat missed the playoffs that year on the last day of the season, and they won only one playoff game in his first two seasons. The phrase "Heat culture" is a cliche by now, but it's a cliche for a reason—the environment Spoelstra and team president Pat Riley have built fosters growth from less-heralded players.
The result: The last pick in the lottery in his draft class is the first player from that class—a group that includes Celtics forward Jayson Tatum—to lead his team to the Finals.
"At such a young age, it's a unique position to be in," said Andre Iguodala, who will be playing in his sixth consecutive NBA Finals after winning three titles in five seasons with the Golden State Warriors and taking home Finals MVP in 2015. "In Philadelphia, I had the opportunity to lead a team at age 23. Wanting those pressure moments and wanting to excel in those pressure moments, you learn so much and you're so much better coming out of it when you attack that head-on and you're not afraid to fail. One of those personality traits you have to have is not being afraid to fail."
The Heat needed what Adebayo gave them in the fourth quarter, with Butler struggling for most of the second half. He scored five straight points and followed that with two assists as the Heat surged ahead. A late dunk helped to seal the 125-113 win.
"He moves the needle in every single way," Spoelstra said. "You can't put an analytic to him, which is why I think he was overlooked. He competes every single possession, he's growing into a leadership role, he's mature way beyond his years. His offensive game is just growing daily, and he wants the responsibility."
That responsibility was never greater, and on the biggest stage of Adebayo's young career, he turned in the best performance of his life.
Now, he must do it again, four times.
Stats via NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.