In the all-or-nothing, reign-or-pain world of sports, where Pat Riley himself coined the phrase, "There is winning, and there's misery," can a team ever fall short but not fail?
The Miami Heat just did.
It was win-and-go-home Wednesday night in the downtown bayside arena. Won-and-done. The Heat defeated Washington 110-102 in the regular season finale but missed the NBA playoffs anyway because Chicago and Indiana -- one of whom had to lose Wednesday -- both won.
The playoffs are de rigeur for the three-time champion Heat. Seventeen of the previous 21 seasons had continued into the postseason. Most years, making the playoffs is the bare minimum for what defines a successful season for this franchise.
Not this time.
Miami finished with an even record of 41-41, but if .500 usually represents average and mediocre, this time it stands for something closer to triumph.
This team can feel good about where it ended, relative to where it was. So can Heat fans, who have been spoiled by success to be accustomed to much more.
A 30-11 second half of the season after an 11-30 first half. That is unprecedented, an NBA first. No team had ever gone from 19 games below .500 -- "People were kicking dirt on us," recalled Tyler Johnson -- to make the long climb to .500. To put that 30-11 second half in perspective, only two other teams did that this season, and they are Golden State and San Antonio, who have the league's two best records. And only two previous Heat teams fashioned a 30-win second half. Both threw themselves championship parades down Biscayne Boulevard.
The team that was laughingstock at midseason finished playing what coach Eric Spoelstra proudly called "must-see basketball."
Ultimate failure? That's harsh but bottom-line true, I suppose. And yet never has a Heat season that didn't reach the playoffs felt this successful, ending so strongly, personifying a team that never quit on itself, and leaving fans on their feet cheering. This season's historic turnaround will give this team -- these players -- a niche in South Florida sports history, playoffs or not.
Spoelstra and his guys were uncommonly emotional afterward to know their magical ride was suddenly over.
"I don't know if I've ever felt this way about a team before, or wanted something more for a team," Spoelstra said. "We went through so much together. Now we don;t have a practice tomorrow at noon. It doesn't feel right. It doesn't feel like the basketball gods shined down on us. We believe in magic. We believe in karma. We believe in things you cant define. None of us are handling it well right now."
Missing the playoffs despite winning, "This felt like a loss in The Finals," Spoelstra said.
It was Fan Appreciation Night on Wednesday. That's supposed to mean the club appreciating its supporters. But this time it was the fans appreciating the team that had won hearts with its fight and its relentless drive.
"I hope we get a standing ovation for our players at the end for a well-earned effort," Spoelstra had said before the game.
He wasn't disappointed.
Fans stood and cheered when old warrior, team captain and son of Miami Udonis Haslem entered the game for a rare appearance with 1:06 to play, and they stood and roared again as the clock expired. It sounded right. Felt right.
"It means a lot for those fans," said Goran Dragic afterward. "They were supporting us for the whole season. We continued to fight. It's not easy to come from 11-30 and make the season .500."
This was the first season with no Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh or LeBron James since before Wade arrived in 2003. This was a team utterly without any all-star pedigree. This was, beyond Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside -- who combined for 52 points Wednesday -- essentially a team of spare parts.
Players among themselves refer to a locker room of guys "from the jungle," as they put it -- meaning from the D-League, from overseas, from failure and from doubt.
"Disparate parts," Spoelstra called his team. "Guys that have bounced around, been in different places. Everybody had a story in this room. To come together as strangers, guys with every reason not to buy into a team -- this felt like three or four seasons wrapped in one."
"Like a movie or something," said Whiteside.
This was Spoelstra's most challenging and best coaching job. Coach of the Year voters probably are not creative or flexible enough to give their trophy to a man not in the playoffs, but this time, they should. Spoelstra dealt with 11-30, dealt with various injuries, kept his guys believing, and cobbled together something that has been the surprise wonder of the NBA the past three months. A masterwork season by him.
It should have ended in the playoffs. That's the heck of it. The Heat has itself to blame. Two late home losses to beatable Denver and the lowly New York Knicks proved so hurtful, the difference. Miami's overall home record of 23-18 was not good enough.
But dissecting how this team fell just short was moot the minute Wednesday's game ended. All that matters is what's ahead.
What does Riley, the club president and roster architect, do now? Does he believe that his team that finished the season on a 60-win pace is, when healthy and with some tweaking, maybe good enough to contend next season? Or will the old fisherman go whale-hunting again? Riley is loyal, at age 72, to two things: His wife, and the Holy Grail of one more championship parade. Is a team that finished 30-11 despite key injuries good enough to challenge for that?
Those questions are for down the road, as summer brings free agency.
For now, let the sound of that post-game standing ovation speak for this group of players, and season.
This Heat team fell short, but it did not fail.