I posted this on Facebook back in April after the Heat were eliminated from playoff contention on the last day of the season. The Heat are playing in LA this afternoon so I thought I would share it.
My first (full) regular season reporting on the NBA just ended so I just wanted to say one thing here that I’ll remember about it.
What I did this year for the most part was go to visiting locker rooms and try to scrap together stories during media availability—30 minute periods before and after the game when the locker room is open to the media. Before the game, you don’t know who’s going to be there or if they’ll be willing to talk. A lot of guys spend the 90 minutes leading up to each game stretching or getting treatment or putting up shots. Sometimes after the game a dude is gone before the media is let in. Or the guy I’m writing about has the worst game of his career and I’m trying to wring perspective out of him as he inches towards the door. (This happened!)
Locker rooms are occasionally uncomfortable but also pretty fun. Each one can reveal a team idiosyncrasy. The Nuggets put nickname placards above each locker. I was super excited to transcribe my interview with Thon Maker but the Bucks blast Future so loud my tape recordings were useless. And the Miami Heat—and this is why I’m putting this down—had the brightest atmosphere of the most brutally bad, brokenass team you could imagine. It was dissonance on another level. You would have thought they were the Houston Rockets. But they were 11-27 I think when I saw them.
These guys were, to a man, friendly and thoughtful and positively talkative. Hassan Whiteside talked about putting on for his family name. Josh Richardson, in a boot, talked about how much of a bummer it was to get hurt just as he was finding a rhythm on the court. The subjects of my article, James Johnson and Tyler Johnson, both having career years, cracked jokes about Chinese food and bad tattoo advice and got half-deep about brotherhood. (They’re not related.) James talked about finally finding an organization that cared about bringing the best out of its players. It’s was a humming, confident bunch. And everyone was acting like they were about to reel off the next 13 games or something.
Erik Spoelstra did not half-ass his pressers. He didn’t give me any pull quotes, but he did discuss strategy freely and openly. I asked him why he didn’t play James Johnson at the 5 more. He gave an answer and then volunteered as an aside that he liked that look before Justise Winslow got hurt (he’d just been ruled out for the season). And sort of winced.
I remember telling someone afterward that they were the happiest 19-games-below-.500 team I had ever seen. As it turned out that group (a bunch of ex-D-Leaguers who got NBA jobs in Miami, plus Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters) wound up knowing something that no one else did. The culture was real. Maybe that came through in what I wrote then.
People rag on the length of the NBA regular season, but it did afford the story of the Heat enough slack for them to crawl back to .500. There was not enough line, though, for them to make the playoffs. They finished 9th on a tiebreaker, and the dilapidated facade of a Chicago Bulls franchise will collect 2 games of playoff gate receipts instead. There will be no whiteouts in South Beach this year. That’s a terrible bummer, because the Heat deserved it, and I believe they could have given the Celtics a very interesting first round series. (Whiteside is a monster.) Maybe, though, their missing the playoffs allows a clearer vision of what the Heat were, or why they struck a chord, here. They worked hard, and were proud of just that, even when the reward wasn’t (anywhere near) in sight. It might not have been enough for them. But it mattered the most. You could just tell.