A tale of two arenas; Monday, one side was bathing in champagne and the other likely in tears. Aaron Gordon, Christian Braun and coach Michael Malone, at separate times, embraced the fans waiting for them behind the line ropes in the tunnel. Then Ömer Yurtseven passed the hallway with his suitcase, looking like he’d seen a ghost.
Heat vice president of basketball ops Andy Elisburg even made an inconspicuous escape through the loading dock as we, the press vultures, scattered and waited for the Nuggets to pass by en route to the locker room.
“Those last three or four minutes felt like a scene out of a movie. Two teams in the center of the ring throwing haymaker after haymaker…” Erik Spoelstra said moments after Game 5.
But I’d say the entire season felt that way. In the last couple of months, the Heat expended everything it had physically to get to the NBA Finals, overcoming the Play-In Tournament to three wins away from a title.
It wasn’t luck, and qualifying it as such would be a tasteless misrepresentation of genius. The Heat legitimately became the beast of the east when it took out the alleged monsters at the one and two seed, Milwaukee and Boston.
Sure, Giannis Antetokounmpo logged 38% of the series minutes in round one. Miami still eliminated Milwaukee in its building the night the Greek Freak dropped 38 points and 20 rebounds.
In the next series, the Heat shattered the fifth-seeded Knicks’ home-court advantage and won both in Miami to go up 3-1. Jimmy Butler missed Game 2 because flop merchant Josh Hart jumped into his ankle, probably capping his explosion the rest of the Playoffs, despite what he says. Miami finished New York off in six.
Its seven-match Eastern Conference Finals with the Celtics should be remembered as a classic. A wise scribe once said the best series involves both squads winning at least two on the road. Miami won three, lost three and then redeemed itself, but in the ECF, three victories came away, and Boston earned two at the Kaseya Center.
The Playoffs have an unmatched ability to expose a player’s genuine basketball character. Tyler Herro, a 20-point per game scorer who recorded 37.8% of eight attempted triples in the regular season, broke two bones in his shooting hand 19 minutes into Game 1 in Milwaukee. His absence could have plunged the group’s chances because of its reliance on him as a dribbler and floor spacer. Yet, the Heat continued to move the rock well and log the highest 3-point percentage in the Playoffs.
Gabe Vincent and Caleb Martin combined to make 38 of 76 (50%) 3-pointers in the ECF with Boston. Max Strus was at his best in the Conference Semifinals against New York, contributing 14.7 points on 35.4% long-range efficiency but an eye-popping 79% on 2-point tries (19).
Kevin Love, former ‘Wolve and Cavalier acquired from the buyout market in February, had 18 starts out of 23 Heat Playoff games. His marksmanship and lacerating outlet, plus half court passes, were a secret weapon through three rounds. Spoelstra inserting him as a starter in Game 2 of the Finals in Denver was one of the pivotal adjustments that propelled the visitors to a dub. He shot poorly but recovered extra possessions and was disruptive against the Nuggets’ drives in the backline.
Butler was the frontman for the Heat’s campaign. In Game 4 against Milwaukee, he dropped 56 points, tied for the fourth most ever in a Postseason match. Through it all, he finished with 592 on his scorecard in 23 outings. Only 16 players in NBA history have supplied more through a Playoff run.
In the Finals, Adebayo was the Heat’s finest performer. He was tasked with trying to contain the league’s most nuclear weapon, the Joker, and still had the energy to bestow 21.8 points on 45.5% shooting in over 41 minutes nightly.
The Heat made mistakes too. Spoelstra didn’t trust Haywood Highsmith to play real time in the Finals, and Butler was too passive for lengthy spurts in multiple outings, while Miami was overmatched. Had Highsmith been used as a rotation piece when Vincent and Strus went cold instead of relief minutes, and Butler had been more authoritative, it would have only delayed the inevitable.
Wednesday, the Heat conducted exit interviews. Adebayo said the moments he went through with his teammates were appreciated.
“You never know what can happen next year,” Adebayo said. “You never know what can happen at the deadline. So for me, I just soak in all the good moments, the bad moments, the adversity, all of it. You cherish it because that’s what makes it a brotherhood. We’ve been through so much this year, and I feel it’s brought us closer as brothers.
But one of them is guaranteed to be gone from the locker room. Captain Udonis Haslem’s watch has ended.
UD’s impact is unreplicable. He sacrificed playing time for the development of the troops starting back in 2015. Haslem trained as hard as anyone and was a respected voice behind the scenes, in spite of uniformed factions of the fanbase and clueless media members wondering why the Heat used the 15th roster spot on him. He’s walking away because he’s fulfilled as a pro, and the guys get it now.
At Sunday’s media day, while Denver was up 3-1, Butler said there was no appreciation for the journey. It came short, but the Heat was the second eighth seed and first play-in team to reach the NBA Finals. JB didn’t think too much of it because he’s cursed with always wanting more. But Wednesday he said his biggest takeaway was his gratefulness to compete with his teammates.
The theme of the regular season was one step forward, two backward. It’s why the group developed the reputation for getting tasks done the hard way. The Heat was the 12th seed on Nov. 21, a month into the season, through 18 games. It never ascended past the sixth seed.
“I am just grateful to be a part of the run we had,” Strus said. “It was a very fun basketball experience for me, and I’ll always remember the moments and run we had. As far as what’s next, I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to it, enjoying the journey and letting things take care of itself.”
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