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NBA Finals run, special in itself, positions Heat for even more success

When the Heat started 11-30 and closed 30-11 only to miss the playoffs by tiebreaker despite winning their last three games in 2016-17, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra opened his press conference with a powerfully silent 30-second loss for words.

“This feels like a loss in the Finals,” Spoelstra said once he eventually began talking.

If only.

After the Heat lost in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Sunday, Spoelstra began his press conference with another memorable speechless moment. Only this time, the silence was replaced by sobs and sniffles.

The Heat had a spectacular postseason. A No. 5 seed, Miami became just the fourth team seeded so low to reach the NBA Finals. Jimmy Butler stood toe-to-toe with LeBron James and bested him. Twice. The Heat pushed the champion Lakers harder than any other playoff opponent did.

But as Heywood Broun said, “The tragedy of life is not that man loses, but that he almost wins.” Miami made this run only because the organization is full of people not satisfied with a strong runner-up finish.

“I told them that I would win them one, and I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain,” Butler said. “So that means I got to do it next year.”

The Heat took a big risk on Butler last offseason, giving the heavy-mileage wing a max contract that’d start after he turned 30. The bet was Butler would provide enough value early in his contract, and it hit big. He played great and set an even better tone of competitiveness and enthusiasm.

Miami’s season was rewarding in itself. It could also serve as a jumping off point.

The playoffs were a months-long infomercial for Heat Culture. Deservedly so. Even while Miami lost the Finals, LeBron displayed the value of a Heat education.

Maybe that’ll resonate with Giannis Antetokounmpo, who once said he dislikes flashy cities like Los Angeles and Miami. The Heat have substance, not just South Beach style.

Antetokounmpo can become an unrestricted free agent in 2021, and Miami projects to have max cap space (even counting cap holds for Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn). At very minimum, by upsetting the Bucks in the second round, the Heat gave Antetokounmpo more reason to examine Milwaukee’s flaws before making his super-max decision.

Miami won’t just passively waiting for next summer, though.

“The time is always now with us,” Spoelstra said.

With an average age of 27.1,* the Heat were the youngest Finals team in a half decade. Adebayo (23), Tyler Herro (21), Robinson (26) and Kendrick Nunn (25) form an enticing young core that now has valuable playoff experience.

*Weighted for playing time in the postseason, keep players’ age constant as of Feb. 1

Miami is prioritizing 2021 cap room. So, that could limit options this offseason. Re-signing Goran Dragic, Jae Crowder and Meyers Leonard to one-year deals would be a nice outcome for the Heat. But those players might seek more-lucrative long-term contracts available only elsewhere. (Derrick Jones Jr. has a different inflection point.)

It also remains unclear just how good the Heat were this year. Maybe they made The Leap as young players developed and in-season acquisitions Crowder and Andre Iguodala lifted the team’s level. Or maybe Miami merely took to the never-to-be-repeated bubble exceptionally well, benefitted from a lack of homecourt advantage and presented the just-right matchup issues against the top-seeded Bucks.

The Heat could easily take a step back next year.

But in world where Kevin Durant is still defending himself against claims he rode the Warriors’ coattails to his rings, that’s not necessarily so bad. The next star might fear that backlash, preferring to join a team that doesn’t appear too established.

Even if Miami doesn’t match this postseason success next year, the impression made in these playoffs should still resonate for a while.

As will Spoelstra’s tearful press conference.

“The emotions, look, I don’t know,” Spoelstra said. “I’m not even like that. I’m not even like that as a person.

“I’m sure my wife’s watching, wondering who the heck this is right now.”

We’ve learned exactly who the Miami Heat are. From Pat Riley down, they have one of the NBA’s strongest identities. They work hard, play tenaciously and win. They win with big stars. They win after those stars leave.

And, whatever happens from here, they’ll probably find a way to win again.