Heat, Panthers are not so different: How South Florida’s teams scrapped their way into conference finals
Sports fans have long associated South Florida teams with the glitz and glamour of South Beach. Think LeBron James promising “not one, not two, not three” championship rings during his Heat welcome party, or the hilariously over-the-top Marlins home run sculpture that was mercifully relocated six years after its construction.
Now, however, South Florida is the unlikely home of sports’ biggest underdog stories.
The eighth-seeded Heat and Panthers have both reached their respective conference finals in the same year for the first time ever (oh, and a few weeks prior, Florida Atlantic and Miami made their first NCAA Tournament Final Four appearances — the Owls doing so as a No. 9 seed).
Here’s a look at how their journeys compare.
Both teams lost as No. 1 seeds in the 2022 playoffs
For the Heat and Panthers, the unlikely postseason runs come only a year after they couldn’t get it done as No. 1 seeds.
- Miami lost to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, in heartbreaking fashion as Jimmy Butler missed a would-be go-ahead 3-pointer with 16 seconds remaining in Game 7.
- Florida, meanwhile, gave credence to truthers of the Presidents’ Trophy curse as they were shockingly swept in the second round after earning the league’s best regular-season record.
But both teams have flipped the script this year, surviving through the first two rounds of their respective playoffs as No. 8 seeds.
Both teams nearly missed the 2023 playoffs
As No. 8 seeds, few expected the Heat or Panthers to come as far as they have. It’s hard to blame the skeptics, though, as a few late-season results could’ve held them out of the playoffs entirely had they gone differently.
The Heat limped to the NBA Play-In Tournament with the league’s worst regular-season offense, and they lost the No. 7 seed to the Hawks, who defeated them, 116-105, in Miami. But in the following play-in game, Butler and Max Strus helped Miami get back on track by scoring 31 apiece to down the Bulls, 102-91, securing a first-round matchup with the top-seeded Bucks.
Like the Heat, Florida was fighting for a playoff position until the very last week of the regular season. The Panthers were in a three-team battle with the Sabres and Penguins for one of the two Eastern Conference wild card spots, eventually edging out Buffalo and Pittsburgh by a single point.
Jimmy Butler, Matthew Tkachuk are the heart and soul of both teams
Since acquiring Jimmy Butler in July 2019, the Heat have embodied his renowned toughness and reached three of the last four conference finals as a result. The Panthers found their Butler in Matthew Tkachuk last offseason.
The Panthers traded Jonathan Huberdeau — who spent his first 10 NHL seasons with the franchise — along with MacKenzie Weegar, Cole Schwindt and a 2025 lottery-protected first-round pick to the Flames in exchange for Tkachuk, who Panthers general manager Bill Zito described as a “tenacious, physical competitor who possesses a tremendously unique skillset.”
Tkachuk’s tenacity turned out to be just what Florida needed. After scoring a career-high 109 points in his first season with Florida, Tkachuk led his team back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the top-seeded Bruins in the first round. The upset was massive, to say the least, as Boston had just won the Presidents’ Trophy and set the NHL single-season wins record with 65. Butler has had multiple signature moments in the current NBA playoffs and Tkachuk had his on Thursday night. He scored the game-winning goal at the end of the fourth overtime to give the Panthers a victory in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final.
While the Panthers got through a juggernaut of a team in the Bruins, the Heat faced as much of a first-round challenge in a single player: two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. The challenge, however, proved to be minimal. Butler did everything but stuff the Bucks in a locker, leading a gentleman’s sweep over the league’s best regular-season team to force the Greek Freak to memorably contemplate the meaning of failure.
Butler would then battle through an ankle injury to help the Heat beat the Knicks in six games the following round, while Tkachuk scored five points in a five-game series victory over the Maple Leafs.
The teams shared an arena in their early years
Long before the Heat and Panthers were spiritually connected like they are now, they were connected by location. Both teams played in the now-demolished Miami Arena during their first few years in their respective leagues.
The Heat called Miami Arena home from 1988-1999, while the Panthers played there from 1993-1998.
Miami Arena was the place to be in the late ’90s, as the Panthers reached their first Stanley Cup Final in 1996 only for the Heat to make the Eastern Conference finals a year later.
Florida left for Broward County’s National Car Rental Center — now called the FLA Live Arena — in ’98 and has been there ever since. Miami, meanwhile, stayed in Dade to move into American Airlines Arena, which now goes by the Kaseya Center.