After fighting through a talent disparity only made worse by two key injuries, the Miami Heat finally got the beatdown that Game 1’s similar blowout portended, going down on dead legs in Game 6 to the Los Angeles Lakers by a scoreline, 106-93, that was several orders of magnitude more flattering than the game itself deserved. The Heat will now stare down into a summer—uh, make that a winter of disappointment at coming so close without a title, despite few ever believing they’d even get this far.
That Miami would be two wins away from a title during this mind-melting bubble season was in the realm of fantasy and homerism. Jimmy Butler’s superhuman Finals performance should change the perception of the NBA’s foremost cheesebutt-no-more, while the young duo of Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro should only improve going forward. On a similar level of importance, it does appear that Erik Spoelstra will be at the helm for as long as he wants it, and having one of the best coaches in NBA history is never a bad thing.
There are many positives to take from the 2019-20 season for Miami that it feels bad to harp on the sobering Monday morning reality, but: There is no guarantee that this Heat core will ever return to the Finals. The specifics of this season don’t need to be rehashed, but it’s not completely surprising to discover that a team that prides itself on its maniacal, workaholic culture was well equipped to adapt to the rigors of isolation and a single-minded focus on basketball. Those specifics do, however, work against the chances of the Heat returning to the Finals next season.
Sure, it’s plausible that even in a more regular season, the Milwaukee Bucks would still run into problems against any form of tough playoff defense. And it’s also within the realm of possibility that the Boston Celtics would once again struggle against a basic 2-3 zone for long enough to give the Heat an insurmountable series advantage. But those are mental mistakes and shortcomings, and the bubble is a factor that needs to be considered. Although Miami is the exact type of team to thrive in these conditions, there’s no promise that they will be able to repeat the feat.
The NBA’s recent history includes another fun, overachieving team that had enough skilled players to climb to the last rungs of the playoff ladder, only to then never reach that summit again: the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder, led by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. After losing a five-game series that felt like significantly closer than that against the Big Three-era Miami Heat, it seemed like only a matter of time before the Baby Thunder turned into the Champion Thunder. Then Harden was traded, Westbrook and Durant both picked up poorly timed injuries during deep runs, and the core eventually fell apart without ever returning to the Finals.
Though the Thunder are the most precise example, because they made the Finals, there are other one-shot teams that made it deep into the playoffs, and those should inspire some worry in South Beach. The 2012-13, post-Melo Denver Nuggets, the Lob City Clippers, and the Grind House Grizzlies all looked like shooting stars that fizzled out after their moments of glory. All of them showed promise, usually in losing to one of the top teams in their own conference but giving them enough of a fight to raise the hopes of their fanbase that, if just a few things had gone differently, they would have reached the pinnacle.
As a Heat fan, I’ll remember watching Butler do what he did in both Games 3 and 5 is something that I’ll remember as clearly as Ray Allen’s three-pointer or Dwyane Wade’s foul-fest in 2006. I was more optimistic about Miami’s chances entering the playoffs—my party line was that they would make the Finals as long as they avoided the Raptors’ own suffocating zone defense—but even I didn’t truly believe that they would push LeBron into God mode, or that they would force Anthony Davis to become the best defender in Finals history.
So, I feel almost ungrateful to not be celebrating this batch of lunatics, who started a rookie in Herro and a former Summer Leaguer in Duncan Robinson for the deciding game of the NBA Finals against LeBron and AD. But there’s no guarantee that this is the start of something, even if the Heat don’t have too many key free agents this offseason; Goran Dragic and Jae Crowder are both valuable players, but they are older and, in Dragic’s case, coming off a gnarly foot injury. If the Heat lose both, they will be worse, but not significantly so.
This might not be Miami’s only shot, but no one would be surprised if it is. The NBA is tough for young teams who peak early, and it could just be that this regret only grows in coming seasons, especially as Butler enters his mid-30s. On the flip side, if Miami does eventually climb this mount victorious, it will be against not just the other teams, but against the very fabric of NBA history. The prospect of that sweet celebration will only make any disappointment along the way hurt more than the 2020 Finals ever did. Now there are expectations for the Heat, where there were none before.