SAN ANTONIO – The trek from the court back to the visitors’ dressing room at the AT&T Center is longer than most in the NBA. It requires Spurs opponents to slip through the tunnel at one end and then head down, beneath the stands, almost to the other end. A basic salt-and-pepper, industrial-strength mat shows them the way, behind a little iron railing.
On nights like Sunday, in the moments after their Game 5 elimination from The 2014 Finals, it’s way more perp walk than red carpet.
One by one, the Heat players, coaches and staff trod along that path, San Antonio’s on-court celebration revving up and booming through the building. LeBron James walked fast, head high, a phalanx of cameras and reporters tracking each step. Dwyane Wade came a few beats later, bare-chested, his Miami jersey gifted at some point after the final horn. They were stone-faced, revealing nothing beyond the harshness and letdown of the outcome.
Ray Allen strode by with purpose, inscrutable, deep in thoughts that surely didn’t include cheeseburgers. Then Pat Riley, looking almost wistful, resigned or ground down by the 70-point differential between his team and the Spurs (the fattest cumulative margin in Finals history). Chris Bosh paused, turned and shook hands with Heat assistant Bob McAdoo. Shane Battier spied a friend, smiled briefly and pantomimed a golf swing, a sign of his impending retirement.
None of them looked happy, obviously. None of them, however, was brought to his knees.
That, after all, is social media’s job, along with the rest of this what-have-you-done-for-me-five-minutes-from-now culture. It musters no patience, offers no comfort and certainly treats nothing sacred, particularly with this team, whose critics outnumber its fans 10-to-1, maybe 100-to-1.
However unceremonious its march into the offseason, Miami had wrapped up four consecutive trips to The Finals. The first, against Dallas in 2011, brought hard lessons and a little humility. The next two produced Larry O’Brien trophies, just like they all had pictured it. This one, three straight beatdowns still hanging in the air, had been telegraphed by slippage in the Heat’s defensive ranks and the loss (via amnesty) of Mike Miller from last year’s team.
This one carried with it some payback from the Spurs, who had been on the other side last June,and it naturally brought a skidload of questions, speculation and uncertainty.
Because this was the Heat and that’s how they roll.
So, Erik Spoelstra, have you guys underachieved? That’s how it went and that’s how it will go for days and weeks and months, now that the ol’ smoke-and-lasers pep rally back of July 2010 (“Not one, not two, not three…”) officially has stopped at two, at least temporarily.
Spoelstra referred to it as “the exaggeration that’s out there.”
“Even as painful as it feels right now, you have to have perspective,” the Heat coach said. “Even the team we’re playing against has never been to the Finals four straight years. You can’t be jaded enough not to appreciate that.”
Wanna bet? Only two other franchises – Boston and the Minneapolis/L.A. Lakers – ever had made it to four Finals in a row. But this was supposed to be about rings, not runners-up. It’s the life they chose, once James, Wade and Bosh conspired to sign with Miami four years ago and gild their resumes through a strength-in-superstar-numbers approach.
Now it’s about the expectations they face. And the urgency to somehow fix things. And the criticism, the gripes and the second-guesses. A lot of people have been waiting for this slip by Miami. Plenty of others, even among Heat fans, are anxiously wondering what’s next. Entertain us.
Even if the Heat had pulled off the three-peat, the team’s future would have been in play. Its stars all have opt-out clauses in their contracts, Battier and maybe Allen will be gone and clearly the roster needed more last summer than Michael Beasley and Greg Oden. It needs even more now after the gap exposed between Miami and San Antonio, the shaky play at point guard and the need to get stronger in the paint.
Spoelstra praised the Spurs – twice – for their exquisite basketball and, like others on the Miami side, sounded humbled by how thoroughly San Antonio dispatched them. “It’s a big disappointment feeling like this,” Spoelstra said.”It’s an incredibly empty feeling.”
Said Bosh: “They exposed us, you know. They picked us apart. They made us question what we were doing and we were always behind the whole time. They played faster, they played stronger, they played tougher and they played like they wanted it more and they played with more pain.”
Nothing hangs over Miami’s immediate future quite like James’ decision on free agency in the next few weeks. He could opt-out and re-sign with Miami. He could opt-in and give it all one more season. He could opt-out and vamoose, turned off by the load he lugged down the stretch (he scored 31 points in Game 5, the other four Heat starters combined for 32).
There have been more than a few references lately to “the Miami Cavaliers,” a nod to the limited help he got in these playoffs from other Heat players, similar to the Cleveland teams he carried in his first four seasons. And that “1 Through 5″ nickname Spoelstra hung on James for his ability to defend any position has morphed for some into “1 On 5,” given the way he too often had to play this year.
James is 2-3 in The Finals now – one big separation from Michael Jordan (6-0) – and those inclined to dislike him would love to push him toward 1-4. Y’know, if not for that Allen 3-pointer late in Game 6 last year…
“Obviously they all hurt,” James said. “This year they dominated us from every facet of the game – offensively, defensively. … [But] I’ve been able to be a part of five of them. I would love to sit up here and say I was 5-0, but I’m not. I’m 2-3.”
As for his future – be it in Miami, Cleveland or anywhere else, with or without Carmelo Anthony added to the Heat’s pricey mix – James was circumspect as he digested the disappointment Sunday.
“I will deal with my summer when I get to that point,” he said from behind a pair of tinted glasses. “Me and my team will sit down and deal with it. I love Miami. My family loves it. But obviously right now that’s not even what I’m thinking about.
“You guys are trying to find answers. I’m not going to give you one. I’m just not going to give it to you.”
Wade was cagey, too. Spoelstra and the Heat’s medical staff had turned him into a part-time player this season for the express purpose of having him rested and fresh for another long postseason. Yet he was no factor by the end, shooting 7-of-25 for 21 points, total, in Games 4 and 5. The Miami shooting guard had 18 turnovers to 13 assists in The Finals, so his game was aching even if he wasn’t.
“Nothing,” Wade said when asked about health issues vs. the Spurs. “Just struggled a little bit. As I told you guys, I’m never going to point at anything physically.”
Since he wouldn’t cop to anything specific, knees, hamstring or otherwise, Wade’s response gave life to theories that he somehow had grown old in a hurry the past 10 days. And fuels its own speculation about the 32-year-old’s value going forward, helper vs. hindrance.
“It wasn’t just Dwyane,” Spoelstra said. “It was pretty much everybody except for LeBron, and we just weren’t able to get into our normal rhythm.”
Wade wasn’t feeling introspective afterward, either – he too wore shades – but he did talk a bit about the big picture of coming together as teammates, visions of Finals trips and a couple more trophies dancing in their heads.
“It’s been a hell of a ride these four years,” Wade said. “We’d love to be 4-for-4, it just wasn’t in the cards for us to be that.”
So it starts anew, another phase to the Miami stars’ grand experiment, every aspect of their love ‘em-or-hate ‘em quest for specialness (on the court and off) chronicled and distilled for maximum drama. The Spurs will be the defending champions next time around. The Heat? Merely, and always, the guys with the targets on their backs.
“The whole league continues to get better every single year,” James said. “Obviously, we would need to get better from every facet, every position. It’s just how the league works.”