The End Of A Beginning

The Miami HEAT have lost some big games. Won plenty, sure, but they’ve been crushed in playoff games, blown big leads in the NBA Finals, had their schemes torn apart and had to watch opponents celebrate the ultimate goal as they’ve taken the long, lonely walk back to a quiet locker room. This is a franchise built on success. That doesn’t mean success hasn’t been ripped away from them.

None of it has ever seemed so crushing for Erik Spoelstra as a 41-41 team missing out on the playoffs.

As Spoelstra sat down in front of the media Wednesday night to confront the fact that a team which started the season 11-30 and finished it 30-11 – the first team ever to climb out of such a deep hole on the way back to a .500 record – would be unable to continue its season into the playoffs, he was at a loss for words. Silence lingered on that podium for half a minute that felt like half an hour. When words were found, there were no basketball technicalities to discuss – no schemes that couldn’t be solved or matchups that couldn’t be avoided.

“I don’t know if I ever felt this way about a team before. I don’t know if I ever wanted something more for a team,” Spoelstra said.

“When any one of us wanted to get into a team sport it was to be around a team like this. We went through so much together in just a few months and really got to know each other and through everything we made each other better. It was such an honor to be around a group like this. It really was.

“I wish I had something for this team just to keep this thing going. I think the hardest thing for any of us to wrap our minds around, is that we don’t have practice tomorrow at 12. It just doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel like the basketball gods shined down on us. I think probably our group wants to be in there arguably as much as any team in the playoffs. It’s just an extremely tough thing to wrap our minds around right now.

“This was a great group, and everything we went through together brought it out. That was the most vulnerable group I’ve been around. It was basketball, but it really became a family, and it became a group that really cared and loved each other and [they] weren’t afraid to tell each other that.”

What made this night tougher to shallow, what made it so raw, was that there was no loss at all. The HEAT won, beating the Wizards by 8, and then had to retreat to their locker room to watch the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers earn their own victories. In the playoffs you have time to prepare. You know it’s an elimination game well before it’s an elimination game. If you lose, it’s because you, and only you, lost. You don’t have to sit, helpless, watching some other team win on the final night of the season.

“We’ve been in our March Madness, our playoffs for several weeks,” Spoelstra said. “So we’re geared up. We’re wired up. This feels like a loss in the [NBA] finals. The way we’ve been going for the last three months, that’s how emotional it is in the locker room.”

“There was sadness,” Goran Dragic said. “It’s really hard to describe, but there were some tears.”

Crushing though Wednesday was, circumstance cannot offer absolution. The team knows that they only reason they did not control their own fate was because of games lost well before the final fight. There were losses to teams that probably should have been beaten and there were losses where a couple bounces of the ball, or a couple split-second decisions, could have changed the results. Losses, whether in the first or second half of the season, whether in the last month or last week, are the only barrier to postseason entry – not whether or not another team happened to rest players – and Miami had one or two too many.

Still, the disappointment doesn’t come just from the team being so close in the end. This team was, for a spell, also so good. They finished the second half with a Net Rating of +6.4, second only to the Golden State Warriors and tied with the San Antonio Spurs. They might have been just as lucky with some incredible three-point shooting streaks (and opponent slumps) during that span as they were unlucky with injuries in the first half, but hot streaks alone don’t make a team play 60-win basketball for three months.

“We were rolling,” Josh Richardson said. “I think if we got in, we would have showed a lot of grit. Our fourth quarter defense is tops in the league. I think we could have done a lot of things.”

There were schematic wonders this season, surely. Nothing quite so revolutionary as Spoelstra’s lineup shifts and chaotic defensive style during the team’s previous title runs, but the HEAT had an identity. They kept the ball away from the rim and choked off the three-point line by simply never leaving shooters as action was funneled again and again into the length of Hassan Whiteside. It was a scheme largely adopted from previous teams, dialed up to eleven with full-court presses and aggressive ball denial, and it produced a Top 5 defense. Offensively, when the team had both Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters available for a 28-game stretch, they drive-and-kicked and drive-and-kicked and drive-and-kicked teams into submission and a Top 6 offense. It was nothing particularly elegant, at times it was even punishingly repetitive, but once it started to work it really worked.

All that wasn’t what this team was really about, however. This team, saccharine as it might sound, was about this.

You might watch that and see a team putting forth the effort, which this group had in spades, but to hear the players talk about this team, the effort was only part of it. You can play your tail off for selfish reasons, after all.

“Nobody is on the outside. Everybody is on the inside,” Dragic said. “Everybody is one step in the circle. Everybody had the same goal: to try to get better and try to develop the team chemistry that we were looking for at the beginning of the season. Because of that, even when you go through tough times, if you look back you will see your teammates there behind you. They aren’t going to leave you. Everybody is together in this. That’s why it is so tough not to make it.”

Tough, too, because chances are this team will never be replicated. The realities of the draft, free agency and the business of the league loom in the coming months, but even if every single roster spot was the same going into next season something would still be different. Every year is different. Players change. People change. You never make the same journey twice.

Whatever the future holds for this group, they’re not likely to be forgotten. In a year that even Pat Riley called a rebuilding year, they built something – a new era for a franchise looking for one. Save for the most tensile threads, the rope from the title runs (as far as personnel goes) has largely been severed. As the team largely took on the personality of its coach, its coach took the reins. He’ll always elect to talk first, and only, about his players, but after an offseason of pundits asking who this team belongs to following big-name departures, the next man up for that role was Spoelstra.

He may have made glossier moves in the past, designing game-winning plays or changing the way lineups are looked at across the league, but Spoelstra’s best job this year was leading a team to belief. In themselves. In each other. In the work that leads to success.

“There’s nothing special about doing the job every day except doing the job every day,” Washington coach Scott Brooks said before Wednesday’s finale.

There was nothing special about how this HEAT team approached the season’s dramatic three-act structure, and maybe that’s what made this group so special even as the book was closed for them.

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