Udonis Haslem has bathed in championship champagne and learned to swallow tough endings to a season on many more occassions throughout his 14-year career with the Miami Heat.
Coach Erik Spoelstra, hired as a video coordinator by the franchise just before Pat Riley came over from the Knicks in 1995, has been along for the same ride even longer.
For two steely-faced men who have seen it all and felt it all, few finishes to a Heat season elicited the kind of raw emotion and reaction both Haslem and Spoelstra displayed when this roller-coaster season, once 11-30, came to a heartbreaking end Wednesday night – one break in Miami’s favor away of a trip to the playoffs.
“This was probably the first time I’ve felt like this – even losing in the Finals,” said Haslem, who admitted he cried alongside his teammates in a locker room filled with players who left in tears. “When we lost in the Finals, I wanted it so bad for myself and for my teammates. But this time I took myself out of the equation and I just wanted it for those guys. I wanted those guys to achieve that. I wanted those guys to understand what that feels like. They worked so hard and those guys deserved that.”
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Spoelstra, the even-keeled leader who has followed Riley’s footsteps for years, needed 20 seconds to gather himself at the post-game podium before he opened his mouth and spilled out his feelings for nearly 15 minutes.
That’s how much this bitter ending to an amazing 30-11 turnaround over the second half of the season stung.
“We believe in magic, we believe in karma. We believe in those things that you can’t define and we just felt we would have the momentum [to make the playoffs],” Spoelstra said. “I don’t think any of us are handling it well right now. It just feels like a loss in the Finals. The way we’ve been going for the last three months, that’s how emotional it is in the locker room. It’s one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever been around, to be able to come together literally as strangers.
“That was the biggest thing we were thinking about and planning for as a staff coming out of training camp. How were we going to get a bunch of strangers and guys on free agent contract years, guys with every reason not to buy into a team, and a lot of departures from people that knew what our culture was about – how were we going to get a group together that would really care about each other and play for each other? This season feels like three or four season wrapped in one. It feels like we’ve been in the playoffs.”
The Heat, which missed the postseason for only the second time in Spoelstra’s nine seasons as coach, believed it was destined to make a splash in the postseason. Having posted the second-best record in the league since Jan. 14 (only the Golden State Warriors were better), Spoelstra thought his team “could do some damage” and would be “playing for a while” this postseason.
Even after watching Indiana eliminate the Heat from the postseason by beating the Hawks Wednesday night from inside Miami’s locker room, center Hassan Whiteside said he still asked trainer Jay Sabol what he needed to do when he got back to the arena on Thursday for practice.
“He said, ‘Just rest your hand and let it heal up,’ ” Whiteside said. “I was like ‘Man, it’s crazy there’s no practice tomorrow.’ I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Said Josh Richardson: “I have no idea what to do with myself right now. I got nothing. I don’t know what to do [Thursday]. Probably just going to sit at home and bang myself with a hammer or something.”
Point guard Goran Dragic, who brought a mural of the Virgin Mary to the arena with him Wednesday from home for good luck, said the end to this Heat season felt the same for him as losing in the European Championships at home in Slovenia.
“It was the same thing,” Dragic said. “The whole team was crying.”
Ultimately what made this loss so painful was the bond players built with each other.
This Heat roster, filled with guys from ‘The Jungle’ as Spoelstra called it, didn’t have an All-Star, featured nine players who at one point or another were in the D-League and had just two players on it who were lottery picks (Dion Waiters, Justise Winslow).
“This is probably the closest team of guys who are like me,” Haslem said. “The teams I played on, you might have a couple guys like me. But you talk about we had seven or eight guys who are pretty much cut from the same cloth as me. There is no coincidence we were able to finish the way we were able to finish. Seventy percent of this league don’t play hard. The thirty percent that plays hard might not have the talent. We were fortunate enough to play hard and have talent. So, when we were able to put together in the second half of the season you saw the results.”
And that’s why this ending stings so much for Haslem and Spoelstra. They were grinders too before they became champions.
Its why both, maybe, loved this Heat team more than any another.
“We loved each other with the Big 3. Don’t get me wrong,” Haslem said. “We loved each other during those championship runs. I created bonds with those guys that will never be broken. But I think towards that end of that run we forget to have fun. And I think this group never forgot to have fun no matter what was going on around us.”