Every season is its own story. That’s something Dwyane Wade has been known to say, and the Heat’s story has really been his story since 2003. Also, every season eventually ends. That’s simply sports truth. The only question is when that ending comes, and whether — and how much — it hurts.
For all the splendor of Wade’s 13 seasons, 10 have ended in anguish rather than euphoria, two prior to the playoffs, three in the first round, one in the Eastern Conference finals, two in the NBA Finals. And now, after this 116-89 loss in Game 7, two in the second round.
Roughly 30 minutes after the Raptors routed his tattered team, to earn a doomed date with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, Wade sat at his locker stall, dressed in all black other than a white Father Prime hat, scrolling through his phone. He had already addressed the media from the podium, but there’s always another question.
Was this the Heat’s craziest season since Wade arrived, in terms of shifting styles, unexpected contributors and, of course, all the adversity, from Chris Bosh’s unfair absence to Hassan Whiteside’s untimely injury?
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He puffed out some air, before speaking quietly.
“Um, man, once I think about it like that, for sure it’s one of them,” Wade told the Miami Herald. “I don’t know. I haven’t reflected too much. I mean, it was tough. But it was crazy because it was tough but it was easy. The coaches made it easy. You know what I mean? They were open-minded. For me, just being at a different place in my career, the way I looked at it and approached stuff was just totally different. So the same stresses you put on yourself, I just didn’t. I mean, it’s tough for me to reflect on it, to make sense of it.”
It will be tough for Heat fans to make sense of what happened Sunday, how a squad that scrambled so successfully with its super-smallball lineup in Game 6 could get swamped in Game 7. But this was coming. Maybe Amar’e Stoudemire wasn’t the ideal messenger, since the veteran center didn’t stand out in his limited postseason minutes, but he was correct in saying about size that “Dr. [James] Naismith created the game to be an inside-out game. It’s going to always matter. It’s how the game has always been played.”
It mattered too much Sunday, as the Raptors grabbed 20 of the available 43 rebounds on their offensive end and converted 27 second-chance points — compared with the Heat’s nine. That, and 20 more free-throw attempts than Miami — for 11 more points — could not be overcome, not when Kyle Lowry in particular (35 points) was finally finding his shooting form. Yes, both teams lost their centers during the series, Whiteside for Miami and Jonas Valanciunas for Toronto. But Raptors coach Dwane Casey still had a big man he trusted, Bismack Biyombo, who capitalized on the comical advantage to do another Dikembe Mutombo impression in Game 7 (17 points, 16 rebounds, two blocks).
Erik Spoelstra clearly did not.
So it was left to the Heat’s slew of smalls — mostly Wade and Goran Dragic — to carry the Heat to Cleveland, and the burden was ultimately more than they could bear. When Dragic, distressed, left the game for the last time, Wade pulled him aside and told him, “Look, G, we did everything that we could; if you want to go far in the playoffs, you need to be healthy.”
Wade was, and he was often dynamic, averaging 21.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists in 14 postseason games, while shooting 46.9 percent — and even sinking a stunning 12 three-pointers, five more than in 74 regular-season games. He reached into his bag of tricks for more memorable magic, shutting up Purple Shirt Guy to steal Game 6 in Charlotte.
Sunday never looked especially fun, not as Toronto kept him largely contained: 13 shots, 16 points, three assists and four turnovers. That, for him, didn’t totally spoil a season that was largely enjoyable.
“Yeah, in a different way,” Wade said. “Like, I had fun on championship teams because we were so good. Obviously, I’m playing with my one of my best friends (James), so I’m having fun. But this was a different kind of season. Really, a lot of stuff came up, but I didn’t stress out at all. Obviously, you lose games and you don’t get no sleep sometimes. But I just never worried. You know? I was like, whatever happened, I’ve seen so much, I’ve been around so much, I was like, [bleep] it, what’s next? No worries, no stress. It was a different year for sure, man.”
Except for one thing: When Bosh, with whom he had bonded so closely, someone the Heat needed so much, was sidelined again with a blood clot at All-Star weekend. Here. In Toronto.
“That, that didn’t even make sense,” Wade said. “Being on the plane with him and then hearing about it All-Star weekend. Are you [bleeping] me? This was the same time last year. It was like really a déjà vu moment. It was crazy.”
He tried to keep a positive face that weekend.
“It was tough,” Wade said. “Because you go into the break, and you’re like, ‘OK, we’re going to get Joe [Johnson].’ You start thinking about all this. And you know if your team plays together more, we’re all going to get better together. We’re going to add Joe. We’re going to be pretty good. And then pow! You know. So. It’s tough…”
They were pretty good, anyway: resilient and resourceful. They were reasonably unique among teams in Heat history, the only one other than 2003-04 that managed to compete while leaning heavily on rookies.
They just weren’t good enough.
Not good enough to get what they wanted, what the fans wanted, what ESPN wanted, what even LeBron James wanted. James texted Wade before the game to wish him good luck. Of course they wanted to face each other in the playoffs. They always have. And this, the conference finals, would have been special for so many others in the Heat organization, simply to stand across from James again after he spurned them. Even if it wouldn’t have lasted all that long, or ended all that well.
“I tried,” Wade said through a smile as he headed toward the bus, to the plane, to another offseason and, eventually, to another story. “I don’t know what I would have had left when I got there.”
So goes the story of the 2015-16 Miami Heat.