The Miami Heat’s season ended on a sobering Sunday night. Head coach Erik Spoelstra rightfully described it as a “thud.”
The way it unfolded felt familiar for anyone who’s followed this season, which has had its ups and downs.
If you’ve been there from the beginning, then you’ve seen more of the ups. Yet, it doesn’t quite take away the empty feeling at the pit of your stomach as the end unfolds.
The magic languished as Boston led wire-to-wire in Game 7 at the FTX Arena. After battling through injuries to gain homecourt throughout the Eastern Conference, the Heat wound up losing three consecutive times on their floor to their rivals, and it cost them a 7th Finals appearance in franchise history.
That’s a reality that will sting for quite some time. The Heat had gotten the better of the Boston Celtics in the last 11 years. Boston just reclaimed the upper hand.
This loss doesn’t feel as disheartening as 2011 against Dallas or 2014 vs San Antonio, but it’s close, because this Eastern Conference Finals felt like basketball’s equivalent of a 12-round bout. Standouts from both sides were in and out due to injuries, while those who fought through displayed ill-effects.
Tyler Herro, the NBA’s 6th Man of the Year, who was second in Heat scoring during the regular season, missed the last 3 matchups before returning in Game 7, where he looked like a shell of himself in limited playing time.
Will his absence be looked back upon with as much of a “what if” factor similar to Goran Dragic and Bam Adebayo’s injuries from the 2020 NBA Finals?
I’m uncertain of that.
This I’m certain: The Heat could have used the creative shot-making of their breakout 22-year-old against the NBA’s best defense, even if he’s widely considered an attack point on the other side of the court.
Even if the significance of his loss was overshadowed by Jimmy Butler’s Herculean effort. Herro, who was a fringe All-Star candidate, could have been a playmaking hub for teammates – he has great synergy with Adebayo, who sometimes looked passive – energized a limited Heat offense against an elite defense, and provided reliable rebounding.
Now add these to the formula: Butler inflaming his knee midway through the series, Kyle Lowry’s hamstring as a hindrance since the opening round, and Miami losing PJ Tucker to a knee ailment in Game 7.
One can’t help but wonder, “they actually got this far?”
From the time this Miami season started back in October, resiliency was their theme. They rode the momentum of an unrelenting and almost “us-against-the-world” mentality - accurately personified by their franchise player - until the wheels fell off.
And even then, they somehow still came within one shot of breaking through.
Perhaps it’s the thrill of Game 7, but there was a stretch which acted as a microcosm for how I’ll remember the Miami Heat of ’22:
And boy, did it nearly work.
The Celtics were dominant all throughout the game. They did to Miami what the Heat did to them at TD Garden: start strong and counter every run with opportunistic plays, whether it was getting a stop, heading to the foul line, or leaning on Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, or Marcus Smart to create offense, as all three were impressive.
So, when Boston led by 13 with 3:35 to go, there was an eerie sentiment of the approaching doom. Some may have even turned from feeling hopeful for a comeback to grateful for what was a memorable journey.
Then of course, the Heat had one last run in them.
It started with a Lowry jumper, followed by an emphatic put-back slam by Max Strus. Victor Oladipo scored on a lay-up and then Lowry did the same. Suddenly, the lead was down to 5, and then 2, after Strus hit a ridiculous 3-pointer.
On a night where Butler and Adebayo could have used their teammates’ help, the supporting cast provided a last hurrah – better late than never.
Boston missed and 18.7 seconds remained.
The crowd was alive. The heartbreak would have to wait.
Pause that scenario for a second.
Now reflect on how it seems a little insane how years of hard work during an NBA player’s pursuit of his ultimate ambition can come down to a singular shot during a brief hiccup in endless time.
Butler’s heroics brought this series to a Game 7. He was Miami’s safety net all playoffs long as they dealt with lineup inconsistencies. He was the culture-enabler this franchise needed for a return to contention. Go years back, and his path is quite extraordinary: homeless to unheralded draft pick to troubled leader to NBA superstar, always getting by on his terms.
He has carried the Heat franchise on his back since arriving in Miami, which is why he had every right to take the shot that he did.
There are a few things to also consider here:
Even if Butler drives against Horford, does that necessarily mean an easy two points against a great interior defender?
Butler shot 34% from deep in the postseason and it was a relatively wide-open attempt.
And here’s the elephant in the room:
Plenty of discussion on whether Jimmy should have gone for the drive rather than shoot this 3 vs. Horford.— Naveen Ganglani (@naveenganglani) May 30, 2022
I'm thinking: what if he drove, and Tatum helped, and Strus was open for the 3?
Is it a better shot?
(Max just made the difficult 3 to cut the lead to 98-96.) pic.twitter.com/y94Eg92UpR
It is one of the life’s most perplexing questions, especially in sports. Those are the scenarios that can keep someone up at night many years later.
“I thought it would have been an incredible storyline for Jimmy to pull up and hit that three,” Spoelstra said.
“I love that about Jimmy. That was the right look, and I just thought as it was leaving his hand, I thought for sure that was going down. It was a good, clean look, definitely better than anything we could have designed.”
Now play the scenario again.
The shot doesn’t go in.
For the Heat, it sucks. Bad. After the last few months, for it to end like that felt miserable.
For the Celtics, it’s validation for the winning position they put themselves in the first 44 minutes.
“I’m not crying or whining. Come on, we got beat,” Spoelstra said, fair and square.
I bet it would help to have that Strus 3 which was surprisingly taken away possessions later rather than right away, though.
The important point, however, is that the final result doesn’t take away from what was a Miami season to remember and admire.
I think it was the most enjoyable run since 2014. The group was close. The chemistry and mutual respect were consistent. They even fought like brothers do. The team’s competitive spirit was outstanding. The coaching staff and players worked in harmony. Every guy personified the “next man up” mentality.
When Miami needed a hero to win a game, there was always someone ready to take the mantle, willing to live with the results.
Towards the end, Butler deservingly carried that responsibility a final time. He was nothing short of spectacular during the postseason, arguably its best performer in the league.
One shot, at home, for the victory, and the chance to make the Finals.
“My thought process was to go for the win, which I did,” he said afterwards.
“[I] missed a shot.”
Sometimes, that’s all it comes down to.
But if you’re lucky, then you’ll find some reprieve in defeat. Through their resiliency and will, the Miami Heat went down swinging.
“My teammates liked the shot that I took,” Butler said. “So, I’m living with it.”
And soon enough, they’ll be swinging again.
Because it’s what they do.