The season teetering, the spirit weakening, Erik Spoelstra had a simple, stern message as the Miami Heat gathered in Atlanta, with just 29 games remaining and Chris Bosh out indefinitely due to an apparent recurrence of blood clotting.
“Expectations haven’t changed,” Spoelstra recalled telling his players Feb. 19. “Pick your heads up. Don’t put your head down. For what? No. Our expectations haven’t changed. Let’s get to solutions how we’re going to get this done.”
Sure, there will be some who portray this recent Heat run, eight wins and two losses without the man that many — including this writer — deemed its most essential player, as just a fortuitous stumble into a fleeting stretch of success.
It would be incorrect, however, to attribute everything to some happy accident.
This is ingrained here.
This organization has made mistakes, like all organizations, over the past 21 years, since Micky Arison put Pat Riley in charge. But it also made a stand, over and over.
There’s one attribute that has separated it from every other professional sports franchise in this area during that period, and from most in the NBA:
That was the title of Alonzo Mourning’s book, but as much as he showed that trait during his Hall of Fame career, the Heat needed plenty without him in 2000-01, the closest comparison to the current season.
Riley had transformed an emotionally tired team with trades that netted Eddie Jones, Brian Grant and Anthony Mason.
Then, in training camp, Mourning was sidelined with a scary diagnosis (kidney disease) with an unclear prognosis.
For the first dozen games, Riley, then the head coach, went conventional, using journeyman veteran Duane Causwell at center. Then, in game 13, at 5-7, he replaced Causwell with defensive wing Bruce Bowen, sliding Mason and Grant up a spot.
Although the payoff wasn’t immediate, the Heat did rally to 42-27 before Mourning came back, finishing at 50-32. That return proved sticky for some, especially Mason. Still, if you merely remember the sour playoff end, and miss the creative means, you miss the point.
“It was a phenomenal regular-season coaching job,” said Spoelstra, then an assistant coach and advance scout. “It really was. Because you just have to look at what people were saying. People always forget. We played an upstart [Charlotte] in the playoffs and people just remember those three losses that were just horrible, OK. But if you just talk about the very beginning of the year, what were people predicting for the Miami Heat?”
After Mourning’s ailment? Doom.
“So now you have a 50-win season you put together by just grinding, questioning, figuring it out, and putting guys in positions where they’re maximized,” Spoelstra said. “You don’t even know where it will go, but you are just going to try to maximize what you have. You end up having a 50-win season, well, people were saying that team was going to win 30 games. That’s a great regular season.”
It was a great example, among many.
David Stern takes away Juwan Howard in 1996. Sign Dan Majerle, move forward.
Keep losing to the Knicks in the late 1990s. Keep getting high seeds for another try.
Miss on Elton Brand with an offer sheet in 2003. Land Lamar Odom with another.
Lose the first seven games of Stan Van Gundy’s coaching tenure. Tweak, regroup, reach the second round.
“You develop a cultural resiliency,” Spoelstra said. “When there’s stability and you know you have an opportunity to grind it and figure out a solution and not feel sorry for yourselves or make any excuses. And you’ve done it enough times over the years, that that’s the deal.”
Spoelstra doesn’t relay all the lessons. He has just been around so many “complex personality teams, that you don’t even know subconsciously what’s rubbed off on you. I’ve seen a lot of teams that have shown that resiliency. Everybody has. We’ve all been here.”
Here they are again.
“Plan B is no excuses, keep going,” Spoelstra said. “You don’t go into a season formulating a Plan B. No. How can you predict Zo? How can you predict CB? How can you predict anything that happens? I learned that early on from Pat and from Stan. That things happen.”
“OK, what’s next?” he said. “All right, that’s in that box. How can we keep this ship moving forward, and what are the best solutions to do that? … Pat and Micky are great examples for all of us.
“They’re as resilient as they come. One way or another, Pat’s going to try to find a way to compete for it. It may not happen. But one way or another.”
The one way is forward.
Wednesday: Heat at Bucks
When, where: 8 p.m., Bradley Center, Milwaukee.
TV, radio: FSN; WAXY 790, WAQI 710 (Spanish).
Series: Heat leads 61-39.
Scouting report: The teams split the first two meetings.