The entire second half of this Heat season has felt like something close to a sporting miracle.
What rescued and saved that season Monday night felt like nothing less.
An 11-30 first half record couldn’t kill this Heat team, and neither could a double-digit deficit entering the fourth quarter Monday against the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers.
Fight. Survive. That has defined this Heat season, so it almost had to come to this, right? To an overtime escape on Monday. Now onto Wednesday. To the final game of the regular season. To an all-or-nothing finish for a playoff spot.
Miami’s 124-121 overtime victory in a game it trailed by as much as 14 points made Wednesday simple enough. Simple, yet difficult.
The Heat must beat the Washington Wizards here and hope that either Indiana (vs. Atlanta) or Chicago (vs. Brooklyn) loses their finale.
Still hope for the Heat, the team has has proved to be the cockroach you cannot quite kill.
Eleven and 30 couldn’t Recent bad home losses to the woeful New York Knicks and bad Denver Nuggets couldn’t.
And neither could the Sort Of-Cavaliers, who came here all but waving a white surrender flag -- seemingly handing a needed victory to Miami, and Miami fumbling that gift for so long before finally prevailing.
The Semi-Cavaliers sat stars LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and also Tristan Thompson with alleged minor “injuries,” and still the Heat nearly lost. Had they, combined with Chicago and Indiana both winning Monday, Miami would officially have been eliminated from the playoff chase one game before the end of the regular season. Instead, life.
“Man, we gave ourselves a chance,” as Josh Richardson put it afterward.
It was bizarre that LeBron sat out. If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was his way of (beleatedly) saying, “Hey, Sorry Miami that I jilted you to head back to Cleveland. No hard feelings. We even now?”
Cavs coach Tryonn Lue admitted before the game his supposedly injured stars could have played.
“The most important thing for us is to give these guys a rest,” he said. “They have carried the load all season.
“It was just the right thing to do.”
Um, no. No, it wasn’t. The bullbleep horn was sounding even as Lue spoke. Sitting his stars was ridiculous for the competitive integrity of the NBA, an embarrassment to the league and sport. No wonder stars “resting” has become such a controversy sitting ugly in the lap of commissioner Adam Silver and the league. Stars sitting if the late-season game is meaningless? Sure. Logical. Defensible. But Cleveland was tied with Boston for the Eastern Conference lead with two games left — and playing a Heat team in an all-but-must-win game.
The playoff-seeding stakes were enormous for both teams Monday. And LeBron James sits? Outrageous. Seriously.
LeBron and those other guys needed to play, and everybody knows it. It was great for Miami they didn’t, but lousy otherwise. And it wasn’t even that great for Miami, apparently. Not at first. Heat fans were robbed of the chance during pregame introductions to emote the usual mixed reaction to the champion/traitor Miamians love to hate and hate to love. Then, a Heat team that prides itself on defense was blitzed for 37 points in the first quarter and struggled to take the game back as LeBron watched in sweatpants, unneeded.
If you cannot beat the Quasi-Cavaliers — tantamount to a Cleveland junior varsity team — at home, in a game you needed to save your season’s life, well, it would have been difficult to argue that team “deserved” better than to be eliminated Monday.
I mean, the Cavaliers had been 4-22 without James including 0-6 this season since his return to Cleveland. Sans LeBron, the Faux-Cavs were all but conceding Monday — and still Miami, even so desperate, failed to rise up until it mattered most. The Heat began the fourth quarter knowing Chicago and Indiana both were headed to victories, and it was enough to help lift Miami to what had then become a literal must-win.
No matter what happens Wednesday — playoffs or not — this Heat franchise has earned some faith capital, some trust equity.
They are allowed to let us down occasionally. This club’s track record buys the latitude that should prevent any railing, any over-emphasis on a few bad defeats down the stretch, including those home losses to the Knicks, or even falling short Wednesday if that occurs.
Look, Pat Riley told confidantes before the season he expected this Heat team to be around .500 and in the scramble for a low-rung playoff spot. And that’s exactly how it is playing out. This was the gritty but ultimately mediocre, mid-rebuild team Riley foresaw.
But oh, how Miami got there! The 180-degree pivot this team took at midseason fashioned one of the great turnaround stories in sports. To be 11-30 at the season’s halftime break, and then climb up to be in the playoff hunt until the season’s next-to-last game — remarkable. Worth cheering. The Heat took a miserable first half and somehow made it an exciting finish.
“It felt like the playoffs the last month,” said Hassan Whiteside.
From 11-30, noted coach Erik Spoelstra, “We were playing for something significant.”
The franchise that has won three NBA championships since 2006 finds a way to make even its down seasons interesting.
Rare has been the abysmal, non-competitive season in the Riley era. You know how many times since the expansion era that Miami has had consecutive non-playoff seasons? Once. Once!
The Heat have made the playoffs in 19 of 28 seasons, or 67.5 percent. That leads the local market for pro teams, ahead of the Dolphins’ 23-for-51 and 45.1 percent. Lagging badly are the Panthers’ 5-for-23 and 21.7 percent, and the Marlins’ 2-for-24 and 8.3 percent.
This season’s hope did not end Monday, and even if it does Wednesday, there is no shame in a team that might have collapsed under the onerous weight of 11-30, but did not.
Appreciate what you have in the pedigree of this franchise, Heat fans.