In coming days, weeks, months, there will be time for reflection.
Fulfillment, however, can’t be immediate, even after advancing within one victory of the NBA Finals.
So, instead, you wind up with Kyle Lowry in the same dark place where so many other Miami Heat players before him have finished, including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Tim Hardaway and even Jimmy Butler as recently as the 2020 NBA Finals.
“For me,” Lowry said as Sunday turned into Monday, “it’s a waste of a year.”
It was, of course, anything but. There was the top seed in the Eastern Conference finals, the swatting aside of Trae Young, Joel Embiid and James Harden in the first two rounds of the playoffs, a fight to a final-seconds finish in Sunday’s winner-take-all Game 7 against the Boston Celtics.
And yet, still, that same emptiness as where James went to his dark place after losing in the 2011 NBA Finals, where Wade stood after stellar seasons and come-up-short playoff finishes, where Hardaway retreated to two decades ago after yet another playoff loss to the New York Knicks with his famous, “just going to go home, have a bottle of Grand Marnier and just chill,” and where Butler’s last breath was not enough in the Finals two seasons ago against the Los Angeles Lakers.
“You don’t know how many more opportunities you will have to get back to this,” Lowry, 36, said, leaving the Toronto Raptors last summer ostensibly to maximize his chances for a second NBA title. “So for me, honestly, it was a waste of a year. I only play to win championships.”
Steps from where the stands at FTX Arena were packed just minutes earlier, an emptiness enveloped the team’s private space. Players slammed the walls of Championship Alley as they retreated to the locker room. F-bombs echoed in that hallway.
“This is one of those things, man,” center Bam Adebayo said, “you fight so hard, through all the season, ups and downs, injuries, disrespect and you still find a way to come this close. It’s rough.”
Had his late, all-or-nothing 3-pointer dropped, it would have been Butler hoisting the Larry Bird Trophy as Eastern Conference finals Most Valuable Player, an honor that instead went to Celtics forward Jayson Tatum.
So even after 48 minutes of brilliance, never once pulled for rest, and 35 points, there was a loser’s lament, Butler instead left to reflect on his eight points in Game 3, when he sat out the second half with knee soreness, and his six in Game 4, when the lift wasn’t there.
“Everything we put into this game day in and day out is toward winning,” he said. “That’s the only thing we care about here in the Miami Heat organization. But I like it because we can learn from it. I can learn from it as much as anybody else.
“In my book, I just think I can’t have bad games. I played like trash in a couple. I think that was the series.”
Left to offer perspective, as difficult as that can be at times such as these, was coach Erik Spoelstra.
“It’s just one of those really tough moments,” he said. “You can’t prepare for it. You’re not thinking about it. It’s one of the worst feelings in the world to address your locker room after a game like this. When it ends, it ends in a thud.”
As Spoelstra surveyed that locker room, the toll of the 106-game ride from the start of the season was apparent.
Tyler Herro could go only 6:43 Sunday because of the groin strain that had him out the previous three games. P.J. Tucker was pulled for good in the third quarter, the knee soreness that had him on the injury list the final weeks of the postseason taking its severest toll. Then there was Lowry, who never got back to himself after straining his hamstring in the postseason’s third game.
“I think if this series could have been . . . if we had a day in between somewhere, or maybe a couple of those gaps, guys could have recovered a bit more,” Spoelstra said, with the made-for-television demands making player health secondary. “But both teams were dealing with it. We were dealing with quite a few things as well. It’s not an excuse. We got beat.
“I love the fact that our guys are putting themselves out there. Kyle, whatever minutes he played [Sunday] was way more minutes than he should have played. Same thing for Tyler. Tyler just absolutely made himself available when he really didn’t have any practices. If it was the regular season, there was no chance he would have played.”
So perhaps out of the darkness, that, ultimately, will be where the satisfaction eventually will arrive, that the resolved never wavered.
“I’ve had that before, also, you know, during those championship runs,” Spoelstra said. “We had guys that the day after the season were getting surgeries. So it was very similar.
“These last two series, it was a daily meeting with the training staff to get an inventory of where guys were. But these guys were so committed to the challenge that they are willing to do whatever it took to get themselves out there and compete and really compete at a high level physically. It just shows you the mental toughness of the guys in the locker room.”