MIAMI -- The Miami Heat season didn’t end Saturday night at AmericanAirlines Arena. At least not technically.
Yet there were still words like this from Dwyane Wade: “At the end of the day, all I cared about was everybody that put on a Heat jersey this year. We fought as much as we could, no matter who was in the lineup. I’m proud of each guy in here, no matter what the outcome is.”
Technically, the Heat still hold a glimmer of hope after losing to the Raptors 107-104, because they own the tiebreaker over both the Nets and Celtics, who currently hold the final two Eastern Conference playoff spots.
But the helplessness of having to pray for either of those teams to lose their remaining games, combined with the disheartening fact that Miami has lost six of its last seven games in this final stretch, creates a feeling of inevitability for the Heat. And the near-finality of it all makes for still more words like this:
“Nobody needs to feel sorry for any of us,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “This is what you sign up for in this business. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You sign up for the competition. You sign up for the opportunity to build a team. And this year has had its challenges for all of us.”
That last sentence from Spoelstra might be his largest understatement of the season.
Losing LeBron James in free agency was the single largest setback this franchise has experienced. Larger, simply in basketball terms, than Alonzo Mourning’s kidney ailment diagnosed in 2000-01. Larger than any injury to Wade. Larger than any unfortunate pingpong ball bounce.
Yet even as the wobbling, dazed Heat attempted an instant recovery, reality continued to batter Miami with one body blow after another. Even a February fleecing of the Phoenix Suns (the acquisition of Goran Dragic at the trade deadline) was immediately followed by far worse news about Chris Bosh, blood clots on his lung ending his season. Even the discovery of a raw, 7-foot talent like Hassan Whiteside couldn’t push Miami past Eastern Conference teams that had been sitting outside of playoff position for nearly all season.
“We obviously were very confident coming back into this year, understanding that we were able to sign Josh [McRoberts] and bring me, Chris and [Udonis Haslem] back in the fold and [Mario Chalmers] and certain guys,” Wade said. “And we knew that we had the capabilities of adding guys and the front office would do everything they can. But the chips didn’t fall the way that we wanted them to.
“It’s unfortunate, but it’s a part of life. But I’m proud of every guy who came in here, from the D-League, from China, wherever they were, and represented the Heat the right way this year.”
As much as players from the D-League, like Henry Walker and Tyler Johnson and Whiteside, and from China, like Michael Beasley and, well, Whiteside, were interesting stories and provided pleasant surprises throughout the season, the talent discrepancy was just too much to overcome.
Case in point, the backbreaking play from Saturday night’s loss to the Raptors. It was an isolation for sixth-man extraordinaire Lou Williams, who banged in a step-back 3-pointer to extend Toronto’s lead to 102-97 with 31 seconds left.
Here’s how Raptors coach Dwane Casey described the play:
“We knew they were going to put their best defender [Luol Deng] on DeMar [DeRozan], and then they put their second-best defender [Wade] on Kyle [Lowry]. So that left [Tyler] Johnson covering Lou. And no disrespect to the young man [Johnson], but Lou can score. So we had the right matchup in that situation.”
That’s about as nicely as a coach can say “Lou Williams had an obvious mismatch.”
After the shot went through, effectively ending the Heat’s playoff pursuit, Johnson held his left hand in the air, to show everyone it was a contested 3-pointer Williams hit.
But really, it wasn’t contested. Not NBA-level contested, because Williams created so much space, so easily, Johnson had no chance at affecting the shot.
Not much three-time champion Wade can do in that spot. Not much Spoelstra can do in that spot.
Just to offer another couple examples of how challenging a group Spoelstra ended up coaching down the stretch, there’s already a Vine floating around with Spoelstra convulsing on the sidelines as he tried to instruct Whiteside to run a play correctly Saturday.
And in the second half, Beasley inadvertently inbounded the ball to an official, forcing Wade to scramble and recover the ball before it went out of bounds for what would’ve been only the second-most embarrassing inbounding moment for the Heat this season.
Although you won’t hear Spoelstra wallowing in self pity.
“Obviously, I’ve got to get the team playing its best basketball,” he said. “It’s what we’ve always prided ourselves on at this time of year. We’re not going to make excuses. We had our opportunity in a lot of these games.”
Again, it’s not over for Miami. After all, this is the Eastern Conference, and the Celtics could conceivably lose to the Cavaliers (even without LeBron James) and the Raptors and the Bucks in their final three contests. And the Pacers could lose. And the Nets could lose.
But Wade isn’t one to pray for such miracles. He has nearly come to terms with his 2014-15 fate.
“This is not a place I’m used to being,” he said. “I missed the playoffs once in my career.”
This will likely be his second such experience.
From four straight Finals to one huge letdown.