MIAMI -- When you call yourself “a championship organization,” you don’t typically celebrate mere contention for the playoffs, and you certainly don’t fish for favors.
But you also don’t turn away any assistance that is offered, not in a season like this. Not when your roster is short on the regal stars of the past, and loaded instead with former Red Claws, Valley Vipers, Blue Whales and Sioux Falls Skyforce -- so many Skyforce.
Not when your highest-paid player (Chris Bosh), 2015 first-round pick (Justise Winslow) and primary late-game option (Dion Waiters) have missed all, most or part of the season, all presently unavailable.
Not when you started 11-30.
So the Heat had no reason to apologize for anything that occurred Monday night, even if it took a furious rally, all of overtime and the miraculous avoidance of a third 4-point play to outlast a Cavaliers squad playing on the second night of a back-to-back without LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, 124-121.
No reason at all.
Even without James -- sitting for a third time in six Cavaliers visits to Miami since he returned to them -- and the two other starters, Cleveland’s top seven had 81 years of collective experience. One of those veterans, Deron Williams, scored 35 points in 46 minutes. And the Cavaliers led by 15 in the second quarter, and 11 in the fourth.
“Survive and advance,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who appears to be enjoying this team more than more talented ones of previous seasons. “That’s what this regular season is about.”
And the Heat will have no cause for shame, even if this ride ends when the regular season does Wednesday. Even if Miami can reach .500 for the first time in four tries, by beating the locked-into-the-fourth-seed Wizards, they’ll still need either the Bulls or Pacers to lose at home to the Nets or Hawks, respectively.
“We think it’s meant to be,” Spoelstra said. “We have to take care of us.”
The odds are against it all breaking right, especially since the Hawks, if they win Tuesday against Charlotte, will be locked into the fifth seed, with nothing at stake against Indiana.
Then again, the odds were against the 82nd game mattering for Miami, when it hit the halfway mark of the season on pace for the second-worst record of Pat Riley’s 22 seasons as team president, the point where other organizations would go total tank for the best lottery shot. Instead, the Heat stunningly won 13 straight, including a victory against Golden State and the first of two against Houston. Instead, the Heat have gone 29-11 since, with a better net rating (plus-6.4) than all but the Warriors (plus-12.9) and Spurs (plus-6.5). This won’t be a championship season, not like three others in Heat history, but this group has embodied the Heat’s culture as much as any other.
Some Heat fans fear the franchise will come to regret its trademark stubbornness, if it falls just short of the postseason or is eliminated easily once it starts.
Will all this work have been worth it, especially since it came at the cost of draft positioning?
That question seemed besides the point in the Heat locker room, during a season in which so many of them proved a point. Most of all, they didn’t give in.
Did players think they could take the season this far?
“Yeah, yeah, I did, definitely,” Goran Dragic said, then laughed. “No, I’m joking.”
“I would lie to you if I said that, that it would come down to the very last game of the season,” said Tyler Johnson, one of four undrafted players in Miami rotation Monday, and the leader with 24 points and a plus-15. “I knew we were going to turn it around, and weren’t going to be that team, the 11-30 team. But once we started to go on our run, and we put a couple together, like five, six, seven, that’s when I was like, this could turn all the way around.”
James Johnson, a ball-handling revelation on a one-year, $4 million contract, said he knew the team could improve because “no one was ball hogging. Usually at that point, that’s where guys go rogue. We were still moving the ball.”
“I think it’s just the character of the guys in our locker room,” Wayne Ellington said. “We don’t have guys who are for themselves.”
“That’s why you see all the emotion with our team,” Tyler Johnson said. “We had to stay together through that whole time. It could have been easy for the guys in a contract year to just say, ‘I’m going to play for my numbers now.’ The hard thing to do was to stay together as a team, knowing we were making correct strides to get to where we needed to get to.”
Now, after winning 29 of 40 games, they’ve gotten here, to the finish, with something still at stake. On Monday, it took a fourth-quarter stampede that came with Dragic and Hassan Whiteside off the floor, with Spoelstra trusting a lineup of Okaro White, James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, Ellington and Josh Richardson from the season on the line.
“It says a lot about us,” Richardson said of battling back from as much as 15. “It’s sort of a testament to our season. We had to be patient for our chance to strike.”
“We’re resilient,” James Johnson said. “If you haven’t seen that by now, you haven’t really been watching us play.”
There’s a reason to watch them Wednesday, for a season’s last stand. They don’t and won’t hang a banner for that, not here, not under Riley’s watch, not in a place where Wade and LeBron once ruled. But, in light of everything, it’s OK to praise a gutsy group for hanging around.