The Miami Heat are headed to the NBA Finals. The same Miami Heat that lost the 7-8 play-In game to the Atlanta Hawks. The same Miami Heat who Bill Simmons referred to as the “Zombie Heat” all season. The same Miami Heat who went just 44-38.
When they beat the NBA-best Milwaukee Bucks, the 2022-23 Heat became the first play-In team to ever win a playoff series, the fourth No. 8 seed to upset a No. 1 seed and the second No. 8 seed to ever make the NBA Finals. In the process, they vanquished all skepticism regarding the competitive benefits of the NBA’s Play-In Tournament.
Since the tournament’s full integration in the 2020-21 season, the closest a Play-In team has come to winning a series is pushing the higher seed to six games. The Finals-bound Heat have spent the last two months launching the ceiling of play-In teams into outer space by knocking off the No. 1 seed Bucks in five games, the No. 5 seed New York Knicks in six games and the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics in seven games. That a team barely broke a sweat until Game 4 of the Conference Finals is a miracle in itself, let alone that that team was a No. 8 seed.
With a play-in team in the Finals (and another, the Los Angeles Lakers, making it to the Conference Finals), less dominant teams now have tangible evidence that they, too, can compete in the playoffs if they play their cards right. To what degree this evidence is a mere mirage is debatable and dependent on the teams in question, but the fact remains that the Miami Heat were minutes away from elimination in a Play-In game on April 14 and are now playing in the NBA Finals.
None of this is meant to say that the Washington Wizards should simply go for the play-in year in and year out due to their own issues we have discussed at length. But perhaps a Play-In team making the Finals is an indication of a new era of parity for the NBA.