Erik Spoelstra struggled, and failed, to hold back his tears as he began his post-Finals presser the other day. The Heat head coach needed the better part of a minute to contain his emotions, in large measure, because he failed to lead his charges to a championship he firmly believed they deserve. It didn’t matter that they were vast underdogs, beset by injuries to vital cogs. Forget that, heading into Game Six of the National Basketball Association title series, they faced the Sisyphean task of winning two more matches in order to see his vision through. From his vantage point, they were ready, willing, and able to buck the odds — just as they did in Games Three and Five. And, to their credit, they continued to give their all until the final buzzer. Early on, though, it became clear that their all would be nowhere near enough.
And so Spoelstra gave in to the hurt, and the fatigue, before composing himself for the unwanted chore of dissecting a gut-wrenching experience. He was still raw from the pain, and it showed even as he remained his erudite self in front of the assembled media. He was likewise thankful; for all his disappointment, he understood the gravity of what the Heat accomplished counter to conventional wisdom. They weren’t supposed to make the playoffs despite the arrival of All-Star Jimmy Butler — but they did, and as the fifth seed. They weren’t supposed to overcome the league-leading Bucks — but they did, and in runaway fashion. They weren’t supposed to upend the highly rated Celtics — but they did, and without question. They weren’t supposed to mount a challenge against the powerhouse Lakers — but they did, and how.
“We didn’t get the final result that we wanted,” Spoelstra noted wistfully. And, no doubt, he’d like to take back some decisions hindsight has exposed to have been wanting. That said, there was simply no glossing over the unfortunate hand fate dealt the Heat. He couldn’t have prepped for Goran Dragic, the Heat’s leading scorer, and Bam Adebayo, their defensive anchor, getting injured on the very first game of the Finals. In fact, the development showed yet again his brilliance as a strategist. The handicaps notwithstanding, he compelled the Lakers to treat them as equals. On offense, he devised complex sets that enabled Butler to post performances worthy of mention alongside those of the sport’s pantheon in the grandest stage. On defense, he kept the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Where others would have succumbed to the crisis, he saw opportunity, and he thrived accordingly.
Given the obstacles the Heat needed to surmount en route, Spoelstra was, perhaps, destined to fall short of his prognoses. He was left with no choice but to ride a seven-strong rotation hard after Game One, and while they competed extremely well in the intervening matches, they were running on fumes by the time the clincher rolled around. Butler was especially gassed after having expended extraordinary energy absorbing haymaker after haymaker from the Lakers — and particularly from the otherworldly LeBron James — in Game Five. And sensing the encumbrance, the series favorites pounced; the set-to was all but over at halftime.
It’s fair to argue that the Heat would have done better with extra rest. And given their tight substitution patterns, they may well have benefited from the usual gaps between Finals matches. Inside the bubble, the every-other-day-save-for-the-middle-of-the-week schedule told on their endurance. That said, resorting to what ifs necessarily requires a thorough look at the big picture: the same arrangement worked to their advantage in the previous rounds. Under the circumstances, all and sundry are right to ignore the whimper in which the Heat finished their campaign. It’s certainly not how their run will be remembered. The lasting impression of Butler will be that of a warrior emptying the tank and outplaying James (and twice!), not that of a player so weary as to prove repeatedly unable to stay ahead of the otherwise-points-starved Rajon Rondo with the season on the line. And the lasting impression of Spoelstra will be that of a champion who made no excuses as he unfailingly coaxed the best out of the Heat.
All told, Spoelstra has cause to hold his head high. He saw the end of a special season with special players, and truth to tell, he requires no hardware to validate their singular achievement. As he argued, “we’re going to remember this year, this season, this experience and that locker room brotherhood for the rest of our lives… I’m just thrilled to be able to have an opportunity to coach Jimmy and have a relationship with him and move forward chasing this dream. It’s not going to stop. We’re all wired the same.” Amen.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.