- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The story of this year’s Miami Heat team can’t be told without mentioning Big Face Coffee.

In the NBA’s bubble, Heat star Jimmy Butler’s upstart coffee brand has gone viral. Sensing a shortage of places to get a good cup of Joe, Butler started making his own coffee out of his hotel room with the French press that he brought with him. And with this being a league of millionaires, Butler’s prices are fixed: $20 per cup. No exceptions.

Butler’s hobby started as a gag and turned into a company that has actually filed trademarks. But it also illustrates more than just beans and a business plan.

It helps explain why Miami has been the biggest surprise of the bubble as the Heat prepare to face the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday. It starts with Butler and the Heat’s incredible chemistry. Miami found ways to stay close over a trying few months by keeping it light (or, depending on how teammates took their coffee, dark).

When the NBA signaled its season would restart after a four-plus month hiatus over the summer, there was talk whether the eventual crowned champion should come with an asterisk. Players and coaches pushed back against the notion, arguing that the circumstances only made it harder to win the title.

Only the fittest of the fit would survive, they said.

Now, the season comes down to the Lakers and the Heat — two teams that, after missing the playoffs in 2019, underwent serious remodeling in the offseason only to come together and respond to challenge after challenge.

The NBA bubble hasn’t been easy for teams. Some players and coaches have gone months without seeing their families, even as the league eased restrictions to allow some members to enter the bubble when the playoffs reached the second round. They haven’t been able to leave the premise. And there have been trying off-court moments related to racial justice, like the shooting of Jacob Blake and the lack of an indictment related to the death of Breonna Taylor.

But the Heat and the Lakers remain standing, in part, because of the chemistry holding them together.

“This has probably been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done as far as a professional,” Lakers star LeBron James said. “I knew what we were coming here for. I would be lying if I said I knew everything inside the bubble, the toll it would take on your mind and body, everything else. It’s been extremely tough.

“But I’m here for one reason and one reason only: That’s to compete for a championship.”

At first glance, the Lakers may not seem to be a smooth fit like Miami’s roster.

But the Lakers are a group like James: They’re veterans who’ve made their name elsewhere and are coming together now with a championship-or-bust mindset. Los Angeles went all in 2019 by trading for star forward Anthony Davis. The team then surrounded James and Davis with role players that had been in big moments.

The transition has worked. James and Davis — two of the top 10 best players in the NBA — have wrecked defenses and their vibe off the court seems strong.

James notably would host Davis for “Taco Tuesdays,” a staple in the James’ household. The personalities and playing styles mesh well. This isn’t a Kobe and Shaq situation.

Then, there’s also all that the Lakers have had to go through. There was the international incident in China during the preseason. Kobe Bryant’s death in January. A pandemic halting the season in March.

Through it all, the Lakers have steamrolled teams in the playoffs — winning each of their first three series in five games each.

A team’s chemistry isn’t the main reason why a team prevails. The No. 1-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, by all accounts, were a pretty tight-knit group before they were dismantled in five games by the Heat. Likewise, the resilient Denver Nuggets, who became the first team to overcome back-to-back 3-1 deficits in the postseason, were outmatched against the Lakers.

Still, it can help get the most out of a group. This is Butler’s first year with Miami, but he appears to fit perfectly into the Heat’s culture. He’s guided the Heat’s blossoming young pieces like Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson. And with coach Erik Spoelstra and team president Pat Riley, the Heat have held Butler to a high standard, just like the star wants.

Before joining Miami in free agency, Butler earned a reputation for clashing with coaches and teammates as his win-at-all-costs attitude rubbed people the wrong way. The Heat, though, welcomed Butler’s demand for excellence — pushing him in the process.

“I knew the type of structure that I wanted and needed, and it was here,” Butler told reporters.

Butler is the biggest difference for the Heat, which makes it remarkable that he hasn’t been the Heat’s leading scorer this postseason. That belongs to Heat guard Goran Dragic, whose 20.9 points edges out Butler’s 20.7. Butler, however, insists he’s content with the number given the way his teammates can produce.

Coincidentally, Butler is averaging a point for every dollar his coffee costs.

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