Erik Spoelstra poured out respect and love for his team in as many ways as he could think to do late Wednesday night. Finally, he hit the exact spot for which he was aiming, a term that Miami Heat players used as motivation and one that describes his NBA background as well.
“We come from the jungle,” said Spo, who relentlessly stalked the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot for months but ultimately went hungry.
“That means guys that come from the D-League, guys that come from getting the door shut on them, guys that failed but kept persevering and developing a grit and a character. That was starting to get revealed to each other and guys were starting to mention it about how much they admired in other guys their character and fortitude. It was just a very cool thing.”
The Heat, as everyone has figured out by now, have a cool coach, just like Pat Riley before him.
Sure, Spo’s got a couple of NBA titles from Miami’s Big Three era, and four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, too. To work for the Heat, however, is to be comfortable with building and dominating and rebuilding again, all with equal gusto.
Spo, who is 46 and still appears to be going on 30, has that ability. It is built into him from his own “jungle” days. Well, actually, he started out as more of a caveman.
“The Cave” is what they called the windowless room where Spo spent endless hours alone, editing videotape and preparing detailed scouting packages in his first Heat job as video coordinator. Rarely even saw Riley, his boss. In some busy stretches, rarely even saw the sun.
When you’re humble enough to pound away like that, receiving minimal recognition and low pay, the experience of going 41-41 and missing the playoffs as a head coach is not going to break you. If anything, Spo’s career arc in Miami is buttressed by his struggles and the lessons that came with them.
Look at his first Heat team, nine very eventful years ago.
The franchise was a mess in 2008, coming off a 15-67 season. That was worth a draft lottery pick but to Riley, who eventually misfired with Michael Beasley at No. 2 overall, it wasn’t worth sticking around on the sidelines. That’s where Spo stepped in, picked by Riley from the coaching staff to take his place, to weather the storm.
So what happened? This will sound familiar.
More winning than anyone expected. More winning than even made sense, with a rookie named Mario Chalmers starting every game at point guard and grinders like Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony eating up way too many minutes down low. Dwyane Wade was great, as usual, even leading the league in scoring at 30.2 points per game, but Spo shouldn’t have found himself at 43-39 and planning for the playoffs.
From 15-67 to the playoffs in the space of one year, that was his coaching debut. You had to go back to the Rockets of 1968-69 to find something like that, so far back that the Rockets were in San Diego and Riley was suiting up for them, along with spectacular rookie Elvin Hayes.
So it was that in Spo’s first season as an NBA head coach the Heat drew Atlanta in the postseason’s opening round. Did just fine, too, pushing the Hawks to seven games before falling 91-78, on the road.
Figures the Miami team of today might have done something similar, giving the Boston Celtics, top seed in the East, all they could handle before bowing in the first round. Don’t tell Spo that, however. His current roster, the one that never got anything in return for the spot Chris Bosh occupied, was ready to roll in his mind. The momentum of a 30-11 second half will do that to you.
“That’s why it just feels so off right now,” Spo said Wednesday after spending more time than usual in the locker room before meeting the media.
“It feels like we could do some damage in that postseason. We feel like we can be playing for a while, but we just weren’t given that opportunity.”
No telling which players will be in a Miami uniform next season, how many will be newcomers and who will move on. Riley drives the personnel decisions, buying and bartering and never trusting the draft to make the kind of difference it did when Wade came aboard at No. 5 overall in 2003.
Whatever Spo gets, however, he will sense more possibilities than we do and accept no excuses.
With this team and with this coach, it’s the long-established law of the jungle.