MIAMI — It’s been exactly a half-century since the slick Pennsylvanian by way of Alabama and Manhattan made his proclamation in this same city, a response to a heckler at a promotional dinner for Super Bowl III, a hearty promise of victory his ragtag Jets would fulfill.
As guarantees go, this wasn’t exactly that.
Justise Winslow, just 22, isn’t Broadway Joe.
But what is the Heat swingman supposed to say when asked if his squad can still pull this out? That his team hasn’t shown any consistency all season, not enough to inspire confidence, not with him still a bit rusty returning from injury and his Kid cohort Josh Richardson leaving Wednesday’s loss to the Celtics with another of his own, this one to the leg and seeming at least semi-serious? That the Heat has three difficult contests remaining on the 2018-19 slate, including two against two of the three best teams in the East? That it’s looking like ninth, the worst possible outcome for this Miami Heat squad — neither in the playoffs nor really in the lottery hunt — is also the single most likely one now?
Of course not.
“What is it, four games?” Winslow asked reporters. “4-0.”
So that’s as close as you’ll get to a called shot on a night that the Heat’s core perimeter players — Winslow, Richardson, Dion Waiters, Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic — missed 43 of 64 shots, wasting excellent efforts from Hassan Whiteside, Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk. But that’s the thing with this team. That’s been the thing all along. Everything is half. Half a good quarter. Half a good game. Half a good week. Half a good roster one night. The other half the next.
Half the time the zone works.
Half the time — especially when it’s used as much as it was Wednesday — it doesn’t, even if Erik Spoelstra said otherwise.
And it’s not just on the court. The front office and coaching staff have been half-stepping all season, never diving into anything. Half committed to the guys with the contracts, half committed to the Kids. Half committed to the present and future, half committed to the past. Half committed to pushing for the playoffs, half committed to holding rotation players out or dealing them for nothing to cut into the luxury tax.
Well, two more losses than wins, 40 compared to 38, with too many of those defeats to terrible teams (Phoenix, Atlanta) coming back to haunt now, as you knew they would. If this season is lost, it wasn’t lost with this loss Wednesday, to one of the conference’s supposed contenders, quirky as the Celtics may be. It was lost with the losses against the tankers, when it was obvious the Heat’s talent wasn’t enough to overcome arrogance.
And it’s hard to ignore the obvious, that they will be one step away again.
One win from the playoffs in 2016-17.
One spot from Donovan Mitchell in that next draft.
Stuck in the middle, again and again.
South Florida’s visionary franchise…. often, oddly without a direction.
“The Heat have set the tone for being ahead of the game,” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst told us on our podcast this week. “They’ve been ahead of the game on so many things. You listen to Tony Fiorentino talk about when he first came to Miami, and how ahead of the game Pat was on video work, and how they were ahead of the game on scouting. And Chet Kammerer, one of the great scouts has been ahead of the game on finding players. And the way they were ahead of the game on getting their players physically fit, Riley was ahead of the game on that. They were ahead of the game in salary cap manipulation. They were ahead of the game in Super Team building. Certainly there had been Super Teams that were built before the Heat, but the way the Heat did it all in one fell swoop and managed it, they were ahead of the game.”
Now they’re just below middle of the pack, and have been only slightly better in the cumulative over the past five seasons.
“They’ve always, always, always been ahead of the game, and thought it out,” Windhorst continued. “And so it’s just such a shock to the system that they made the mistake of locking themselves into a non-All-Star players the way that they did. And the fact that this summer, the biggest free agent summer since 2010, the Heat are completely locked out of it. And it’s just so unusual.”
It’s not as if they haven’t tried, of course. They tried for Kevin Durant, but ended up just keeping Whiteside. They tried for Gordon Hayward, and were close, and Hayward (25 points, eight rebounds, five assists) showed Wednesday why the Heat courted him so vigorously prior to his calamitous injury.
“He had a big night for them,” Wade said, after the second-to-last regular season home game of his career, with the last coming next Tuesday against the 76ers. “That’s what good teams do. They have different guys on different nights that can have those big nights for them and you don’t have to just rely on one guy. That is why this team right here (the Celtics) is good.”
The Celtics are good enough for fourth in the East, which is actually a disappointment compared to preseason projections. But better than the Heat, because the Heat haven’t known which player to rely on this season. It was Richardson early, but he doesn’t fit the alpha role. It has been Dragic at times, when he’s gotten healthier after an extended absence, though he struggled Wednesday. It has been Winslow some, too, but then he suffered the thigh bruise setback, and he didn’t look sure of himself in his return. And even then, the Heat haven’t turned over the keys to him completely; too often, he’s put in a watching role, as others get their turns; in a sense, this season has been Justise vs. Justify (the expensive presence of the veterans). Of late, it’s Dion Waiters, who had 21 points Wednesday, but is averaging an outlandish 11.2 three-point attempts per game over the past six games, making some shots for sure, but also snuffing out possessions that could be used by others.
Oh, yeah, and often, the player relied upon been a 37-year-old who was more than 80 percent sure he wouldn’t even play this season, until he did. (Check out our episode with our cinematographer Bob Metelus for that, with the back story of how he, Lisa Joseph, Gabrielle Union and others had to convince him to play). It’s a tribute to Wade that he’s carried so much burden, but it’s also reflective of an organization in flux. He wasn’t supposed to be needed like this. Not now. Not anymore.
And now he has four games left, unless Miami fulfills Winslow’s guarantee and wins them all, or at least three. Do you expect them to do that? With Winslow gimpy? With Richardson uncertain? With Waiters chucking? They’ve won at least four straight only once this season, a five-game stretch just prior to Christmas.
“We have four left,” Wade said. “We knew we have a tough schedule. We have to figure out a way to win some games down the stretch. We are going to go out there and give our best every night and hopefully we get a few to put ourselves in.”
Not exactly Namath.
“It feels like we’ve been in the playoffs for several weeks,” Spoelstra said. “We need to shut our doors and not listen to everything out there. It’s going to go down to the last game as expected.”
You know they’ll shut them halfway.
And go 2-2.
Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) has covered the Miami Heat since 1996, which means he hasn’t seen many teams miss the playoffs. (inset photo by Alejandro Villegas)