The locker room, as much as any room can express the feelings of a group, felt like many things, but it did not feel sad or regretful. It was tired.
Nobody knew what to expect in the coming offseason, but the end of the 2014 NBA Finals felt like the end of something. Changes were inevitable. The way the Spurs so thoroughly shredded Miami’s unique style of defense portended a reinvention, both for the team and the league. Some veterans were headed for retirement. Free agents had decisions to make. The future was in good hands, but the picture in that crystal ball was cloudy.
I wasn’t in the locker room Sunday night after the Miami HEAT’s run ended at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers. Not many were. But from what we were able to see, it wasn’t anything like that night in San Antonio. This was a setback, relatively, but an early chapter. What you needed to know rested in the lengthy pause a normally stoic Erik Spoelstra took to wipe watery eyes before answering questions over Zoom.
“It took me a few minutes just to gather myself to be able to even figure out what to say to the team,” he said.
“These memories that we'll have, again, that transcends even the game. As disappointing as this loss was, those moments and memories in between and this whole experience will be something that we can all take with us for the rest of our careers and the rest of our lives.”
Spoelstra’s reaction recalled the final night of the 2016-17 season, when the HEAT were officially left outside looking in on the postseason having been eliminated via tiebreaker. That team, famously starting 11-30 before finishing 30-11, had captured the hearts of many in Miami and inside AmericanAirlines Arena.
"When any one of us wanted to get into team sports it was to be around a team like this," Spoelstra said that year. "We went through so much together in just a few months and really got to know each other. Through everything we've made each other better."
Meaningful as that team was at the time, and crushing as the result felt, the feeling dissipated as the weeks wore on. Even though much of the group was brought back, at the time nearly the entire team was bound for free agency. With Dwyane Wade in Chicago and the Golden State Warriors holding the mantle of the mid-2000’s dynasty, there was no mistaking that period as anything but transitional.
A couple months later, with a lottery pick they had only because they missed the playoffs, the HEAT drafted Bam Adebayo.
Little did anyone know at the time, but draft night in 2017 was the beginning of the end of that transition. Wade would return midway through the following season and get the full retirement tour as that particular, incredibly successful era in franchise history came to a close. The work was still being done, with Adebayo and Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and Derrick Jones Jr. being developed, Duncan Robinson was signed and put on a path starting in the NBA G-League and Kendrick Nunn was signed in the final days of the 2019 season amidst Wade’s many festivities. Small beginnings in the face of a big ending.
The constant was Goran Dragic, the one-time All-NBA selection and eventual All-Star who was brought in to compete with one group that almost immediately fell apart and did nothing but smile through the years until the next contender came together. Not a soul who has spent time in his vicinity was surprised for a second that he would try and eventually succeed in getting back on the court with a torn plantar fascia, as he did in Game 6. If you ever encounter Dragic in the wild, good luck shaking the compulsion to buy the man a beer.
You know the rest. The HEAT continued the mother of all team-building runs, drafting Tyler Herro, trading Richardson and Hassan Whiteside for Jimmy Butler and Justise Winslow for veterans Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill. Every move contributed to winning. If they were standing at the craps table the casino might have asked them to leave. Well, that’s not quite the right analogy. These weren’t dice rolls. They were calculated plays. Poker plays. Not guaranteed plays, but the right ones by the percentages.
The Bubble helped the HEAT, as it did for any team without home-court advantage or injuries to sort out or midseason trades to coalesce. You can acknowledge as much without discounting the accomplishments. Just about everyone in Orlando said repeatedly how different things were in that space, and we should probably believe them.
Most teams say they’ll be back. Jimmy Butler said so Sunday night, and he has no reason to think otherwise. But not all teams will be. There simply aren’t enough spots for it to be true for each team, each year. The HEAT just experienced years of things going one way, until everything seemed to dramatically shift the other way all at once in what became a nearly adversity-less season until injuries mounted the past couple weeks. The Heat had as many postseason wins in the final five minutes as any team since the 2002 Lakers, and that’s after a regular season in which they ranked 24th in clutch minutes. Butler had the third-most clutch points this decade, with 48. Things had to go right, as they do for any team. You do the work to put yourself in position for things to go your way.
“We're trending in the right direction,” Butler said. “We're going to learn from this. We're going to get better. We're going to come back. We're going to come back. We'll be back. That's what we're all saying in that locker room. We got guys that want to do it. We got guys that already want to get back in the gym and get to working at this thing. That's what we do here.”
Different as the feeling was in 2014, everyone thought that team would be back, too, until they weren’t. Reminding that you never know what can happen isn’t revelatory. It’s only to appreciate for a few moments more how special what just happened was before we move on to what could be.
Writers have different styles and goals when they sit down in front of a blank page. Some lean toward hardcore reporting, some weave an intricate story and others offer technical, data-driven analysis. No matter how precise a breakdown or purposefully purple the prose, it’s always important to ask yourself how the words are intended to make someone feel. There’s too much writing, as there are so many movies and shows and podcasts, for anyone to remember a specific sentence for longer than a couple of days. But years later, someone will know how the best of it all made them feel.
Few will soon forget the feeling the 2019-20 HEAT gave them. In what has been the darkest year on record in the lives of far too many, there were at least moments like Adebayo blocking Jayson Tatum or Herro dropping 37 or Butler following up Jimmy Butler’s Game 3 with Jimmy Butler’s Game 5 as he defended LeBron James and twice touched immortality. Moments of lightness, of brightness. That might not be much, but it’s something.
What’s to come will come. Another draft, another free agency period. Possibilities to discover and debate. Decisions to make. Just about everyone who worked for the team back in 2014 works for the team now. Spoelstra and his staff just put on a coaching masterclass – one timely adjustment after another as they tailored schemes and rotations to the challenge at hand – worthy of all the front-office wizardry which set it all up. The process isn’t changing.
They aren’t a rebuilding team. Not anymore. They aren’t an up-and-comer. They’re here, now. They’re expected. How that changes the microscope and the noise and the attention, we can only wait to see. Looking back, we may remember this season as the honeymoon. Or not, given how well all the pieces seem to fit together behind a player who proved nearly all he needed to prove, even without the desired result.
“This is what my team needed me to do, the organization asked of me,” Butler said. “I told them that I would win them one and I didn't hold up my end of the bargain, so that means I got to do it next year. I told Coach Pat, I told Coach Spo I'm here to win one. I didn't do my job, so moving forward, I got to hold up my end of the bargain.”
Either way, whenever next season begins it will be different, however slightly.
The HEAT haven’t quite been in this position before. They’ve had teams full of young talent that didn’t get this far, to the Finals. They’ve had star-laden, veteran squads that seemed like that had to get this far. The balance they have today, young and old, talent across the board, with flexibility ahead and success in pocket, is one franchises rarely come across.
They’re here, with promise ahead, because of all the work that culminated in one special year. Sometimes the beginning is the best part. This is the end of that beginning, but what a beginning it was.