Jimmy Butler studied box scores. Max Strass wore a sweatshirt from Lewis College, a Division II school in Romeoville, Illinois. Lewis College offered him a scholarship when a major program passed him. And with fireworks crackling outside, power forward Udonis Haslem, a Miami Heat mainstay for the last 20 seasons, reflected on his final game.
“I’m proud of them and I’m proud of my team,” said Haslem, 43. “I told my players that I had no complaints or regrets. They gave me a final season that I will never forget, and that’s all I could ask for.”
There was sadness in the ball arena’s visiting locker room Monday night, but there was also joy. There was a mixture of pride and resignation. But above all, after the Heat’s 94-89 loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, there was a sense that Miami had lost the series to a superior opponent and a well-deserved league champion. Really it’s easy.
“I wish I could have climbed to the top of the mountain and taken the final win,” said Heat manager Erik Spoelstra. “But I think this is a team that a lot of people can relate to for anyone who has ever felt let down or disrespected. A lot of people have been through it, and I’m sure a lot of people have felt the same thing at least once.”
Some of the storylines that accompanied the Heat’s run to the playoffs may be infuriatingly familiar by now. How nine of the players on the roster were undrafted. How did they overcome adversity and grow? How Spoelstra embarrassed his supposedly more talented opponents in zone defense. And how the team’s best players, Butler and Bam Adebayo, gave confidence to their low-profile teammates.
But there was something fresh and funny about the Heat, as the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, taking down one surprise after another, one surprise after another. They became the second No. 8 seed to reach the NBA Finals.
“I’m just grateful,” Butler said of standing by his teammates. “I learned so much. They taught me so much. I wish I could have done it for them because they definitely deserve it.” I think.”
Perhaps most importantly, Miami’s playoff run is a testament to organizational stability, a notion that sounds as bland as boiled potatoes. But the Heat, with the Nuggets sticking through their core and coaching staff through ups and downs, say that boredom and perseverance pays off, and constant change is seldom the answer. has shown
Spoelstra, who has been with the Heat since the mid-1990s, first as a video coordinator and then as an assistant, embodies that approach. He has coached the team for 15 seasons, making him the second-longest-tenured coach behind San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich. At a time when professional sports coaches tend to be shuffled around like Trump, this is no easy feat. About a third of NBA coaches have been fired or resigned during the 2022-23 season.
And at a time when some teams are hoarding draft picks and strategizing on how best to acquire top-level prospects (this is the diplomatically obscure “tanking”), The Heat have continued to prioritize developing young players while striving to remain competitive. Even if it’s a difficult and daunting task.
Spoelstra recalled training camp and said it was competitive. At the time, the Heat were just months away from a disappointing Game 7 loss to the Boston Celtics in the 2021-22 Eastern Conference Finals. The memory of that match seems to have inspired them.
“We barely made it through a full-contact practice without everyone yelling at each other, yelling at the referee coach or arguing about the score,” Spoelstra said.
And then a strange thing happened. Miami had been struggling with mediocrity for months. The NBA is no easy business. The Heat lost seven of their first 11 games. By late December, they were only half winning. By April they were closing in on the play-ins, but lost to the Atlanta Hawks for the No. 7 seed in the East. Miami needed to beat the Chicago Bulls to qualify for the final playoff spot in the conference, but Miami trailed by up to six points in the fourth quarter but then won by 11 points.
But the whole process turned out to be important. Despite the struggle, the Heat ignored the temptation of quick-fire. They didn’t replace their roster by the trade deadline. Instead, they continued to go about their daily tasks, relying on the belief that they had found their rhythm, handled well when it mattered, and were becoming more resilient.
“No one let go of the ropes,” Adebayo said.
Even if the Heat in hindsight slipped into the playoffs, they threw the party apart the moment they arrived. It took just five games to eliminate the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in the first round (Bucks star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the offer). his viral discourse (on the definition of “failure”), then defeated the No. 5-seeded Knicks in six games. Miami got their revenge on the Celtics by outsmarting them in Game 7 of the Conference Finals in Boston to advance to the NBA Finals.
Some members of the Heat expressed as much confidence as ever about facing a 3-1 series deficit against the Nuggets ahead of Monday’s game.
“We’ve been through a lot of adversity this season,” Adebayo said. “Who else would end up in this situation?”
Part of it could have been taken as a public stance, except that the Heat seemed genuinely determined to extend the series. The Nuggets made 5-of-28 3-pointers in Game 5, thanks in part to the Heat’s aggressive defense. Butler, meanwhile, awoke from hibernation and scored late in the game, making two free throws to give Miami an 89-88 lead with 1:58 remaining.
But the Heat went scoreless for the rest of the game, and the Nuggets won their first championship thanks to do-it-all center Nikola Jokic.
“The last three or four minutes were like a scene from a movie,” Spoelstra said. “The two teams in the middle of the ring are throwing haymakers one after the other, but it’s not necessarily the shotmakers. rice field.”
Spoelstra added that it was probably the team’s “most active defensive game” this season.
“It was still not enough,” he said.
Haslem later said he was already thinking about next season and how returning players can build on their playoff experience. he will not be among them.
Haslem, who signed with the Heat in 2003 and won three championships with the team, is retiring. And while he’s played less in recent seasons, he’s been a huge force in the locker room. He also played a role in tying the organization together as someone who understands the pressure and hard work and how things go in Miami from season to season, a phenomenon commonly known as heat culture.
Haslem has vowed to stay active next season.
“Somewhere near,” he said. “Somewhere nearby, I can promise you that.”