The Heat and Timberwolves are headed to the playoffs. The Bulls and Thunder are headed home. Miami and Minnesota clinched the eighth and final seeds in their respective conferences Friday night in the final round of the play-in tournament. The Heat outlasted the Bulls in a defensive thriller while the T-Wolves blew out a young Thunder team. Here are four thoughts on the play-in results …
1. Jimmy Butler was named a finalist for the Clutch Player of the Year on Friday, and he lived up to that billing in the play-in finale. Butler entered the fourth quarter with just under 10 minutes to go and the Heat trailing by four. Miami ended up winning by 11. Jimmy Buckets scored 13 in the decisive frame, adding two assists and a steal for good measure. Butler’s relentless assault on the rim earned him six trips to the free-throw line and his layups actually started falling. He and Bam Adebayo also keyed a furious defensive stretch—the Heat allowed only one point in the last three minutes and 47 seconds of action.
For all of Miami’s struggles this year, Butler has been fantastic. Considering his efficiency, 2023 was arguably the best offensive season of Butler’s career. And he’s been a killer in crunch time all season long. If the Heat have any chance of even taking a game off the Bucks, it starts and ends with Butler. He has to keep Miami within striking distance, and then hope he can work his clutch magic late in games.
2. It’s probably time for the Bulls to blow it up. As promising as the defense was in the second half of the season, Chicago is now following up a first-round exit with a lottery appearance. There is talent on this team. But it hasn’t gelled well enough, and the Lonzo Ball injury has thrown a massive wrench into the front office’s plans. Nikola Vucevic will be an unrestricted free agent, and he seemed like largely an afterthought on offense in Friday’s do-or-die game. Coby White also needs a new contract. DeMar DeRozan is entering the last year of his deal. Chicago doesn’t necessarily have to bottom out. Vucevic could be an intriguing sign-and-trade option. Patrick Williams would be attractive around the league. The core can be reshuffled around DeRozan and Zach LaVine. Or the front office can go all out, and look for deals for LaVine, DeRozan and maybe even Alex Caruso. That would bring back valuable draft capital and/or some young pieces. Whatever the case, after an exciting start to last season, the Bulls have been uninspiring for about a year and a half now. This result is definitive proof Chicago is stuck in the middle.
3. The Timberwolves mostly avoided embarrassment with their win on Friday. Minnesota simply couldn’t afford to go home against a young, inexperienced Thunder team most expected to be in the lottery since last summer. After the big Rudy Gobert trade, the Wolves will actually enter this postseason with a worse seed than they did last year. And they’ll draw the tall task of trying to defeat the Nuggets in Round 1.
We can say this for Minnesota: With its season and collective reputations on the line, it responded well. The Timberwolves looked like they were teetering on the final day of the regular season after the Gobert-Kyle Anderson incident. Since then, Minnesota almost pulled off a massive upset in Los Angeles without two starters. Then it thoroughly took care of business against a loose Thunder squad that took out the Pelicans on the road. Minnesota could have folded amid the turmoil. It could have laid an egg after letting a win slip away late against the Lakers. Instead, the Wolves showed an impressive bit of resolve for a team everyone is seemingly waiting on edge to clown. Now, that clowning may very well still happen if Denver runs roughshod over this team in Round 1. For now, the Wolves have earned a well-deserved reprieve from the jokes.
4. The Thunder were playing with house money during the play-in. It’s not the worst thing for OKC to have gained a taste of playoff-like basketball (Diet Playoffs?) and head to the lottery anyway. The Thunder were not built to win anything this year. What this season showed is this team has the ascending talent to compete if Sam Presti is willing to cash in some of his chips. With Chet Holmgren poised to return next season and a Scrooge McDuck-level vault of draft picks, it’s time for Oklahoma City to take some swings.