Miami Heat Prove Value of Patience, Even in NBA Finals Defeat

Jimmy Butler studied a box score. Max Strus pulled on a sweatshirt from Lewis University, the Division II school in Romeoville, Ill., that had offered him a scholarship when high-major programs passed on him. And as fireworks crackled outside, Udonis Haslem — a power forward and a staple of the Miami Heat for the past 20 seasons — reflected on the final game of his playing career.

“Proud of these guys, proud of my team,” Haslem, 43, said. “I told the guys I have no complaints, no regrets. They gave me a final season that I’ll never forget, and that’s all I can ask for.”

Inside the visiting locker room at Ball Arena on Monday night, there was sadness but also some joy. There was resignation mixed with no small amount of pride. But most of all, in the wake of the Heat’s 94-89 loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 of the N.B.A. finals, there was the sense that Miami had lost the series to a superior opponent and a worthy league champion, and sometimes it really is that simple.

“We would have liked to be able to climb the mountaintop and get that final win,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “But I think this is a team that a lot of people can relate to, if you ever felt that you were dismissed or were made to feel less than. We had a lot of people in our locker room that probably have had that, and there’s probably a lot of people out there that have felt that at some time or another.”

Some of the story lines that accompanied the Heat on their deep playoff run may be irritatingly familiar by now. How nine of the players on their roster were undrafted. How they seemed to thrive on adversity. How Spoelstra flummoxed arguably more talented opponents with his zone defense. And how Butler and Bam Adebayo, the team’s two best players, filled their more unsung teammates with self-assurance.

But there was also something novel and fun about how the Heat, as the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 seed, went about their business — pulling off upset after upset, surprise after surprise. They were just the second eighth seed to reach the N.B.A. finals.

“I’m just grateful,” Butler said of being around his teammates. “I learned so much. They taught me so much. I wish I could have got it done for these guys because they definitely deserve it.”

Most of all, perhaps, Miami’s playoff run was a testament to organizational stability, a concept that sounds about as bland as boiled potatoes. But the Heat — along with the Nuggets, who have stuck with their core and their coaching staff through a smorgasbord of ups and downs — have shown that being boring and exercising patience have value, that constant change is seldom the answer.

Spoelstra, who has been with the Heat since the mid-1990s, first as a video coordinator and later as an assistant, personifies that approach. He has been the team’s coach for 15 seasons, making him the second-longest-tenured coach behind San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich — no small feat when coaches in professional sports tend to be shuffled like playing cards. About a third of N.B.A. coaches were fired or quit in the 2022-23 season.

And in an era in which some teams stockpile draft picks and strategize about the best way to land top-shelf prospects — this is less diplomatically known as “tanking” — the Heat have continued to prioritize developing their young players while striving to be competitive, even when it is hard and often unrewarding work.

Spoelstra recalled training camp, which he described as hypercompetitive. At the time, the Heat were only a few months removed from a disappointing end to their 2021-22 season: a Game 7 loss to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. The memory of that game seemed to fuel them.

“We could barely get through those full-contact practices without everybody screaming at each other, yelling at the coaches that are officiating, arguing about the scores,” Spoelstra said.

And then something odd happened: Miami spent months wrestling with mediocrity. The N.B.A. is not an easy business. The Heat lost seven of their first 11 games. In late December, they had won only half. By April, they were bound for the play-in bracket, and with the No. 7 seed in the East on the line, they lost to the Atlanta Hawks. Needing to defeat the Chicago Bulls to secure the conference’s final playoff spot, Miami trailed by as many as 6 points in the fourth quarter — and then won by 11.

The entire process, though, proved important. Despite their struggles, the Heat ignored the lure of quick fixes. They did not flip their roster at the trade deadline. Instead, they kept at the daily grind while banking on the belief that they would find their rhythm, that they would get it right when it mattered, that they were becoming more resilient.

“Nobody let go of the rope,” Adebayo said.

If the Heat slipped into the playoffs as an afterthought, they crashed the party once they arrived. They needed just five games to eliminate the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in the first round (leading Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ star forward, to offer his viral discourse on the definition of “failure”), then beat the fifth-seeded Knicks in six games. Miami proceeded to reach the N.B.A. finals by exacting a measure of revenge on the Celtics, walloping them in Game 7 of the conference finals — in Boston, no less.

As for facing a 3-1 series deficit to the Nuggets ahead of Monday’s game, some members of the Heat expressed as much confidence as ever.

“We’ve been through so much adversity this season,” Adebayo said. “Who else would be in this situation?”

Some of it could have come off as public posturing, except that the Heat seemed truly determined to extend the series. The Nuggets went 5 of 28 from 3-point range in Game 5, an effort that was due in part to the Heat’s aggressive defense. Butler, meanwhile, emerged from hibernation to go on a late-game scoring binge, and his two free throws gave Miami an 89-88 lead with 1 minute 58 seconds remaining.

But the Heat went scoreless the rest of the way as the Nuggets seized their first championship behind Nikola Jokic, their do-everything center.

“The last three or four minutes felt like a scene out of a movie,” Spoelstra said. “Two teams in the center of the ring throwing haymaker after haymaker, and it’s not necessarily shotmaking. It’s the efforts. Guys were staggering around because both teams were playing and competing so hard.”

Spoelstra added that it was probably his team’s “most active defensive game” of the season.

“And it still fell short,” he said.

Afterward, Haslem said he was already thinking about next season and how the team’s returning players could build off their experience in the playoffs. He will not be among them.

Haslem, who signed with the Heat in 2003 and won three championships with the team, is retiring. And while he played sparingly in recent seasons, he wielded outsize influence in the locker room. He also operated as a connective thread for the organization, as someone who understood pressure and hard work and the way things are done in Miami, from one season to the next — a phenomenon more commonly known as Heat Culture.

Haslem pledged that he would still be around next season.

“Somewhere close by,” he said. “Somewhere close by, I can promise you that.”

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