DENVER — Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra didn’t hide from the truth after watching the Denver Nuggets end his team’s championship dream following a 94-89 loss in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Monday night.
“There’s no regrets on our end,” Spoelstra said after the game. “There’s just sometimes where you get beat, and Denver was the better basketball team in this series. That’s about as hard — I don’t know how long it would take me to go through the autopsy of this final game, but I would say that it will probably rank as our hardest, competitive, most active defensive game of the season, and it still fell short.”
In the end, NBA Finals MVP Nikola Jokic, guard Jamal Murray and the rest of a hard-nosed Nuggets group proved to be too much for Spoelstra’s overachieving team. Spoelstra and his players didn’t take solace in the fact that they became just the second No. 8 seed ever to reach The Finals, but Spoelstra did respect the fact that they got beat by a Denver team, coached by Michael Malone, who has developed the same kind of culture that has defined the Heat for almost three decades under the leadership of Heat president Pat Riley.
“You have to tip your hat to them,” Spoelstra said. “I said it, but they are one hell of a basketball team. They play the right way, they compete, they are well-coached and they have a strong culture. So for this season, they deserve this.”
The Heat don’t make excuses as an organization, but the reality is they looked like a team that ran out of gas against a superior opponent. Heat star Jimmy Butler, who imposed his will on games throughout the postseason, carrying the Heat at various points, finished just 5-for-18 from the field and struggled to find any rhythm offensively, aside from a few clutch shots down the stretch.
Arguably the most important sequence of the game came with less than 30 seconds to play and the Nuggets clinging to a 90-89 lead. Butler drove to the rim but got bottled up in the post by Murray and Jokic, then tried to find teammate Max Strus in the corner but the ball was stolen by Nuggets swingman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and the Heat were forced to foul. Caldwell-Pope drained two free throws, Butler missed a three-pointer that would have tied the game on the following possession, and the game was effectively over.
When asked what stood out about the final two minutes of the game, one in which the Heat had several chances to take the lead, Butler offered up the same kind of truth that Spoelstra did minutes earlier at the podium about the series as a whole.
“That I turned the ball over,” Butler said. “That’s what stood out.”
Butler refused to blame any of his struggles on any lingering injuries, focusing instead on how ‘grateful’ he was to be able to play with this group.
“I’m just grateful,” Butler said. “I learned so much. They taught me so much. I wish I could have got it done for these guys because they definitely deserve it.”
While the disappointment was palpable from Heat players and coaches in the locker room, there was also a sense of pride because of what the Heat accomplished to even get to that point after almost losing to the Chicago Bulls in April during the Eastern Conference play-in tournament.
“You take the experience of this season and if you can just bottle that up, and everybody just have their own portion or rewritten story of it. The No. 1 thing I think would be will,” Heat center Bam Adebayo said. “So looking forward, I think this is one of my favorite teams I’ve ever been a part of because we willed our way through ups and downs.
“We willed our way through the things that people said we couldn’t do.”
As strong as the sadness was for the Heat, there was a sense of pride about what the group accomplished. Spoelstra said he told each one of his players that he loved them and that they would always be bonded by what they did together this season. That resonated, especially for 43-year-old veteran Udonis Haslem, who will retire after 20 seasons with the club.
“I’m proud of the guys. I’m proud of the team,” Haslem said. “I just thank those guys for giving me this amazing memory. This amazing memory to take with me. I tell the guys I have no complaints, I have no regrets. They gave me a final season that I’ll never, ever forget and that’s all I can ask for.”
Spoelstra said that he was proud of the way the group handled the adversity that came its way and was hopeful those lessons could be passed down over time because of the way the group always seemed to be able to bounce back from the tough times.
As the Heat look ahead, they do so facing some difficult questions in the near future. Key contributors Gabe Vincent and Max Strus will be free agents. Guard Tyler Herro will have to be re-integrated into the group after missing almost the entirety of this postseason. The Heat need to decide how many assets they’d be willing to put in a trade to try and acquire another star to pair with Butler, who will be 34 in September.
As Riley and Spoelstra try to figure out the answers to those questions, they do so with Butler still steadfast in the belief that this group will be able to win a title.
“It’s been great,” Butler said of his four seasons with the Heat. I’ve had some helluva teammates come through and compete with me and give us the opportunity to win a championship, which I still believe, with everything in me, that we will do as a team here, as an organization, as a city in Miami.”