The narrative about this Miami Heat regular season that ends Sunday against the visiting Orlando Magic is that the season got away because of losses to bottom feeders such as the Magic, Pistons, Pacers, Trail Blazers, Spurs and, twice apiece to the Wizards.
But the reality entering the weekend is that those teams this season have won a combined 200 games. So the Heat hardly were alone in that regard. Bad teams win games.
A far more significant narrative, one that is so critical in the postseason, is that the Heat did not step up to many of the most meaningful challenges over the second half of their schedule, games that not only could have swung the standings, but also instilled the type of confidence needed for what comes next.
As in performances such as Thursday night in Philadelphia, when the Heat showed the potential of their possibilities.
What long has defined the Heat under Erik Spoelstra have been the big-game moments over the first 82 that set the stage for the days, weeks and months (?) that follow, statement victories over rivals or indomitable individuals (sorry, Jeremy Lin).
To their credit, the Heat got one from the Cavaliers when needed, two from the Hawks when needed, beat the Bucks without Giannis. But prior to Thursday against the 76ers, you had to go back to wins over Celtics during the first half of the schedule for true statements.
So where did it truly get away, where was the confidence drained that led to this relegation of sorts to the play-in tournament? Ten games over the second half of the schedule stand out as ones that sent the seeding south.
Feb. 2 at New York: The season’s first of the four meetings between the teams is when the Heat were ahead of the Knicks in the race for the No. 5 seed, the Heat entering the night at 29-23, the Knicks at 27-25.
To their credit, the Heat battled back from an 11-point deficit with 7:23 to play and a five-point deficit with 5.2 seconds left to stand in position to tie or go ahead off an inbounds play with 2.1 seconds left.
That’s when Tyler Herro went for it all on a potential go-ahead 3-pointer with five-tenths of a second to play. He missed, with the Heat losing 106-104.
Feb. 4 at Milwaukee: Having three weeks earlier defeated Milwaukee twice in Miami in the Bucks’ injury absence of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Heat got a far truer version of the Bucks. And a harsher dose of reality in the 123-115 road loss.
Antetokounmpo closed with 35 points, 15 rebounds, 11 assists. The Bucks exited 36-17, the Heat at 29-25.
Feb. 15 at Brooklyn: An argument could be made that this 116-105 loss at Barclays Center was the Heat’s costliest loss of the season.
Not only did the Heat give up 17 fourth-quarter points to Mikal Bridges to allow the Nets to pull away in a game the Heat led early in the fourth, but it gave Brooklyn the season tiebreaker, with a 2-0 lead in the three-game series.
It basically was two losses on a night the Heat seemed more intent on getting away for the All-Star break that began the next day.
Feb. 24 at Milwaukee: Another opportunity to make a statement against an opponent that stands as a potential first-round foe, another opportunity lost, this time thrashed 128-99 at Fiserv Forum.
Even more humbling was that Antetokounmpo was injured early in the game, playing only 6:28 and scoring just four points. No matter, as Milwaukee’s defense smothered the Heat to .391 shooting, just 43 points in the second half.
March 1 vs. Philadelphia: Having defeated the 76ers two nights earlier in Philadelphia, this was an opportunity for the Heat to show sustainability. Instead, a 119-96 home thrashing that dropped the Heat to 33-30.
In some ways, this mirrored some of the Heat’s losses to lottery teams, with the 76ers dominating on a night Joel Embiid sat out with a sore left foot.
March 3 vs. New York: This was a crusher, and actually a game effort, even with the 122-120 loss that dropped the Heat 4 1/2 games behind the Knicks, at 33-31.
Again there was a frantic late rally against the Knicks, this time from four down with two minutes to play, with Herro putting the Heat up 120-119 with 23.1 seconds to play on a driving layup off a steal.
But with Julius Randle smothered, the Knicks All-Star forward launched a desperation 3-pointer from his heels that closed the scoring with 1.7 seconds remaining.
March 18 at Chicago: No, not necessarily a marquee opponent, but this came with the Heat already down 0-2 in the three-game season series against what at the time stood as a potential play-in opponent (and yet could be if the Heat need a second play-in game).
So what do the Heat do when coming off a signature home victory over the Memphis Grizzlies? Fall behind by 25 in the first half and flail the rest of the way, practically a no-show in the 113-99 loss.
Now, should the Heat find themselves in a must-win situation against the Bulls in a second play-in game, it will come with Chicago having the confidence of having swept the season series
March 25 vs. Brooklyn: Even having already lost the head-to-head tiebreaker in the three-game season series, this game could have swung the final week of the regular season in the Heat favor for the No. 6 seed and direct playoff berth.
Instead, after leading 69-65 at halftime, the Heat are outscored 64-31 in the second half of the 129-100 loss. With so much at stake, this stands as arguably the highest level of failure this season.
March 28 at Toronto: This is similar to that March 18 loss in Chicago, with the Raptors exiting with the confidence of winning the season series 3-1 after the 106-92 victory.
Like the Bulls, it could be the confidence-boosted Raptors playing the Heat in a potential winner-take-all second play-in game Friday.
March 29 at New York: The stakes still were plenty high the night after that loss in Toronto, with the Heat still vying to take the tiebreaker from the Knicks and contend for the No. 5 seed.
Instead, it was the Knicks again putting it away late, outscoring the Heat 25-16 in the fourth quarter for the 101-92 victory, in what arguably stood as the final meaningful moment of truth for the Heat during the regular season.
AWARD SEASON: No, no formal vote here, not with NBA postseason awards factoring into player salaries and bonuses (should the media be any part of determining salaries?). But ballots are due Monday for the league’s annual selections. With that in mind, a few perspectives from here. There appear to be a pair of lopsided votes on the way, with it practically criminal if Sacramento’s Mike Brown is not a unanimous selection for Coach of the Year and with Boston’s Malcolm Brodgon a clear choice for Sixth Man of the Year, with all due respect to the Knicks’ Emmanuael Quickley. Likely as lopsided will be the vote for Rookie of the Year going to the Magic’s Paolo Banchero, although the Thunder’s Jalen Williams and Jazz’s Walker Kessler deserve their due. Among the most competitive races should be Most Improved Player, with Utah’s Lauri Markkanen slightly ahead in a competitive field that also should include the Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Knicks’ Jalen Brunson. As for Defensive Player of the Year, with all due respect to the Heat’s Bam Adebayo, the Grizzlies’ Jaren Jackson Jr. gets the nod here ahead of the Cavaliers’ Evan Mobley and Bucks’ Brook Lopez. As for the new Clutch Player of the Year award, the Kings’ De’Aaron Fox likely edges the Heat’s Jimmy Butler. When it comes to Heat postseason honors, the perspective here is Butler on second-team All-NBA, with Adebayo a question mark for an All-Defensive team, simply because of the humongous late-season dropoff of the Heat defense.
ALTERNATE REALITY: As with the Heat, who also advanced directly to the playoffs a year ago, the Toronto Raptors have had to accept the reality of a spot in this season’s Eastern Conference play-in tournament. At least that’s the way Raptors guard Fred VanVleet is putting it. “Last year we were in the top six, so I got to laugh at the play-in,” VanVleet said, “This year we’re in [the play-in] and you’ve got to wrap your mind around we’re going to win a game or two to get in. Just be open-minded and positive about it.”
UNIVERSAL RESPECT: As Udonis Haslem approaches Sunday’s career regular-season finale with the Heat (he will address the home crowd at 1 p.m. Sunday prior to the game against the Magic), respect has poured in from around the league. “Undrafted to a 20-year career, staple, impeccable name, respect around the world. I gotta put him on the list. I like him a lot,” VanVleet told Bleacher Report’s Taylor Rooks. Then there is Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, who said on JJ Redick’s podcast of Haslem, “He got a presence with these dudes, what he says means something.”
CHAMPIONSHIP WHIRLWIND: Yes, that was Heat assistant coach Caron Butler in Houston on Monday night watching UConn, his alma mater, win the NCAA championship, before being back on the bench for Tuesday night’s game in Detroit. The Heat drafted Butler out of Connecticut with the No. 10 pick in 2002. “What a program, right?” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of the Huskies. “They have an incredible history and they’ve been able to do it with a lot of different kinds of teams. It was a special run they had this year. Caron is very proud, as he should be.”
7. “Coney” hot dogs covered with chili, onions and mustard consumed by 15-time Nathan’s champion Joey Chestnut in one minute during an eating contest in the third quarter of the Heat’s Tuesday night game against the Pistons in Detroit. The charity event raised $25,000 for hunger relief in the Detroit area.