With his team in need of some heavenly help to make the playoffs, Heat point guard Goran Dragic brought a mural of the Virgin Mary with him from home Wednesday and hung it inside his locker before the game.
“We need them on our side,” Dragic said about an hour before Miami faced the Washington Wizards in its regular season finale.
The Heat did its part, beating the Wizards 110-102 at AmericanAirlines Arena to complete one of the most remarkable second half turnarounds in NBA history and reach the .500 mark after being 11-30 back on Jan. 14.
Unfortunately for Dragic and the Heat, the other half of his prayers weren’t answered. Dwyane Wade and the Chicago Bulls trounced the Brooklyn Nets and the Indiana Pacers hung on to beat the Atlanta Hawks to eliminate Miami from the playoffs and end its season.
“I don’t know if I ever felt this way about a team before,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who needed almost 30 seconds to gather himself at the podium post-game before he began talking about the end of his team’s season.
“I don’t know if I ever wanted something more for a team,” he continued. “When any one of us wanted to get in to team sports, it was to be around a team like this. We went through so much together in just a few months and really got to know each other. Through everything, we made each other better and it was such an honor to be around a group like this. It really was. I wish I had something for this team just to keep this thing going. I think the hardest thing for any of us to wrap our minds around is that we don’t have practice tomorrow at 12. It just doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel like the basketball gods shined down on us.”
The Heat (41-41) needed either Chicago, which owned the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Heat, or Indiana (42-40) to lose Wednesday to squeeze into the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Nets, with nothing to play for and no initiative to tank with Boston owning its draft slot, sat six players including leading scorers Brook Lopez and Jeremy Lin. The Hawks, locked into a first round series with the Wizards, sat five players including All-Star Paul Millsap.
With no help from either Brooklyn or Atlanta, the Heat will settle for being known as the team which rallied from the biggest hole in league history to finish .500 or better and only the fourth team in franchise history to win 30 games over the second half of a season. Only the Golden State Warriors had a better record than Miami after Jan. 14.
Prior to its 19-game turnaround in the standings, no team in league history had rallied from more than 12 games under .500 to finish even or better. That piece of NBA history, though, wasn’t really what the Heat was aiming for.
In the locker room afterward, players said tears flowed freely.
“It’s really hard to describe, but there were some tears,” said Goran Dragic, who led five Heat scorers in double figures Wednesday with 28 points, four rebounds and five assists.
“You can see everybody cares on this team. We were really fighting to make the playoffs. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it. This is one of my most favorite teams that I’ve been a part of. I would go to battle with those guys any day. They can call me any time. You cannot achieve more as a group chemistry wise. Probably because of that it’s even tougher to swallow. This group is really tight.”
Had the Heat made the playoffs Spoelstra said he thought his team could “do some damage” and “be playing for awhile.”
His players agreed.
“I thought this group had enough of an edge and stubbornness to do something special,” said center Hassan Whiteside, who posted his team-record 58th double-double, finished with 24 points, 18 rebounds and two blocks in 30 minutes and secured the first league rebounding title by a Heat player ever with Wednesday’s effort.
“Dion [Waiters] was coming back and it was going to be a two-headed monster. JJ playing one through four, even the five tonight. Then we got Tyler [Johnson] coming off the bench. Then you surround all those attackers with shooters. Perfect recipe.”
But instead of facing the Boston Celtics or Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs this weekend, Miami will head into the off-season with a 98.2 percent chance it will have the 14th pick in the draft (and a 1.8 percent chance it will have a top 3 pick in the lottery on May 16). The Heat will also have roughly $38 million in cap space (after it releases Chris Bosh) to tinker with the roster.
Miami could end up spending most of that money on Waiters, James Johnson and Willie Reed to keep the core of this team together or Pat Riley could go ‘whale hunting.’
Whiteside said he hopes Riley will consider keeping this group together.
Wednesday, the Heat did what it could control – beating the Wizards.
After taking its first lead of the game on a Whiteside jump hook with 5:59 left in the half, the Heat took a 56-50 lead into the break and never trailed again.
The Wizards, which sat All-Star point guard John Wall and starters Bradley Beal and Markieff Morris, were led by Trey Burke’s 27 points off the bench. Former Miami Hurricane Sheldon McClellan scored 18 points in 35 minutes off the bench.
Soon, Wednesday’s game will be forgotten. But the sting of a season cut just short of the playoffs could last all summer.
“I felt bad man and I did tear up because I did want it so bad for those guys,” captain Udonis Haslem said.
“I really wanted it for those guys. If there’s been a group of guys that deserve to make the playoffs, it was those guys. They never had a break. It was injury after injury. We could have found excuse after excuse. They never did that. They just came in and worked and already talked aobut coming in to work this summer.
“JJ is going to spend some time with me. Dion is going to spend some time with me. Tyler is going to spend some time with me. They want to know the secret of how to make 36 look so good. I’m going to make sure I spend time with them this summer and they get prepared for next season regardless of what my situation might be next season.”