Goran Dragic entered the losing locker room, and wasn’t in the mood for any joshing from Josh McRoberts, not after the Heat had lost its collective composure, lost a 26-point lead, lost a game to the Celtics, 98-88, that could have been costly to its playoff positioning.
McRoberts was insisting that the Heat, after scoring a season-low five points in the third quarter and then giving up 35 in the fourth, had somehow stumbled its way to the third seed, courtesy of Atlanta’s loss to Washington, and due to the NBA’s arcane, complex tiebreaker procedures.
“Excuse my language,” Dragic said, as he addressed reporters through a gap-toothed smile. “But I told him, ‘Come on, stop bull------ me.”
Yes, it was difficult to believe, that the Heat could reap any reward on a night like this, when it allowed the biggest comeback in the NBA this season, all the while allowing reasonable doubt to creep into its fan base, about just how playoff-ready Miami is. But rewards were indeed undeservedly reaped, because Atlanta, for whatever reason — some of the Heat speculated the motivation was to avoid a matchup with Miami — didn’t take the final game against the Wizards especially seriously.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
So, with Boston beating Miami, Atlanta losing and Charlotte beating Orlando, the four teams tied with 48-34 final records — a coincidence that amused Dwyane Wade as he first spotted it on his phone — and giving the Heat the Southeast Division title over Charlotte and Atlanta by virtue of the aggregate head-to-head record.
That gave the Heat the third seed, with Atlanta getting the fourth, Boston the fifth and Charlotte the sixth through other tiebreaker methods, and setting up the Heat against the Hornets, starting in Miami this weekend.
That gave the Heat a path to the conference finals that doesn’t include the top-seeded Cavaliers — or, for that matter Boston, which bothered the Heat with its ball pressure in all three meetings this season, sweeping the season series.
That gave the Heat everything it hoped to get, as the game started, even as the Heat got humiliated for roughly an hour in front of roughly 20,000 cheering, whistling, waving Bostonians, some of whom had spent the first half booing.
Got all that?
Well, all of this would have easier if the Heat had just gotten its 49th win, but it didn’t, even after playing flawlessly in the first half, paced by Dragic, Joe Johnson and Hassan Whiteside combining for 40 points, in building a 62-38 lead.
“Embarrassing,” Celtics guard Avery Bradley said.
Ah, but that was nothing.
The Heat quickly topped it, by bottoming out. Miami shot an unfathomable 2-for-20 in the third quarter. It wasn’t just the youngsters cracking either; the Heat’s experienced hands couldn’t make anything either, whether it was the right pass or a run-stopping shot. And on the defensive end, all intensity and connectivity was missing.
“In the first half, we were the team we wanted to be,” Luol Deng said. “And in the second half, we were the team we didn’t want to be.”
So what team is this, as it takes on Charlotte, a floor-spreading, deep-shooting squad with which it split four meetings this season?
It’s impossible to truly know. And that’s why it’s tough to know how to feel about what happened here Wednesday, as everything came together in the standings while the Heat confirmed the worst fears by coming completely apart in a challenging environment.
No, it doesn’t wash away all the good that occurred this season — the resilience after the loss of Chris Bosh, the emergence of rookies Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, the persistence of Wade and Deng and Dragic, the development of Whiteside, and of course, the 48 wins, the most from a team coached by Erik Spoelstra without LeBron James.
But it does raise more concerns. Even in its post All-Star surge, Miami won just two games on the road against playoff teams. It won’t start on the road, and when it gets to Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena for Game 3, that won’t be nearly as hostile a setting as Boston’s TD Garden. Still, Wednesday didn’t bode well, with the rookies getting rattled and the veterans seeming vexed.
So how to feel?
For Heat fans, comfort might be challenging to find, and rightly so.
But Spoelstra and the Heat can’t linger too long.
“We just talked about it as a team, you have to be able to compartmentalize right now and this is just the way this crazy regular season has gone,” Spoelstra said. “I think it was fitting that the four teams finished with the same record. All of us had demoralizing, tough losses going down the stretch so by default we ended up getting this one.”
“If you look at the big picture all of us are still feeling the second half, but the reality is you don’t get it by default you earn it during the regular season by winning the games that you need to in a very close race. Its been a wild regular season for us.”
That is has.
“We’ll take that 3rd seed and the home court and we do feel good about that,” Spoelstra said.
That seemed to be the shared sentiment in the locker room. Some sheepishness about what occurred, for sure. But also, some relief. They won’t say this publicly, but this scenario is what they wanted. This team has seen enough of Boston this season, seen enough of those traps, enough of this crowd.
Now it will see the Hornets — a worthy foil, but without some of the drama, and the scars.
Starting at home.
“Regular season is over,” said Wade, who scored 17 in reaching a personal goal, by missing just seven of 82 games due to injury this season. “You use everything as a learning experience and move on.... That’s not our opponent the next time we step on the court so it doesn’t matter.”
You say that’s a good thing?
Well, no kidding.