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The Miami Heat has already experienced some painful losses this season, but Udonis Haslem believes the defeat that impacted the team most came a few weeks ago in San Francisco.
The Heat led by 15 with nine minutes to play and ended up losing to the Golden State Warriors in overtime on Feb. 17 in the middle of a long and grueling seven-game West Coast trip. The loss dropped Miami to 11-17.
“That Golden State game hurt,” Haslem said. “I’m not kidding, I slept in my sweatsuit. I woke up the next morning and I had my clothes on and I still had my hoodie over my head, I took that one hard. That was a tough one. ... I think collectively, everybody had hit bottom at that time.”
There’s also the Heat’s Feb. 3 home loss to the then-struggling Washington Wizards. Miami led by 10 at halftime and still lost to fall to 7-14.
The 40-year-old team captain, who has yet to play in a game this season but has an important leadership role, remembers delivering an emotional speech to his Heat teammates after that game.
“I was just saying that it’s one thing to lose basketball games and its another thing to lose your soul,” Haslem recalls. “I started to see blank stares. I started to see us lose our soul as a team collectively, and that’s not to say that we’re soft or anything like that. But it’s just the way we were losing games, I think it was really hurting the guys. We were really being hurt by those losses. We don’t like that. That doesn’t sit well with us.
“Guys were really being scarred by those losses. It was really starting to take a toll on us and beat us down a little bit. I just wanted the guys to dig deep in their souls and just do a soul check real quick.”
Those two moments were pivotal ones in the Heat’s season, and the team took steps forward after both.
The Heat has won 11 of 15 games since that loss to the Wizards and seven of eight games since that loss to the Warriors. Somehow Miami has managed to collect enough wins over the past month to reach the All-Star break with a .500 record of 18-18.
For a team that represented the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals last season, .500 is hardly an accomplishment that warrants celebration.
But relative to where the Heat stood at 7-14 four weeks ago and the injury issues and COVID-19 protocol-related absences it has endured, .500 represents a clean slate when the 72-game schedule resumes on Thursday against the Orlando Magic at AmericanAirlines Arena.
“We learned that we can handle a lot,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of the first half of the season. “Really, there’s a handful of teams that have handled an exceedingly large amount of different kinds of adversity and unpredictable things. We’ve proven to ourselves that we can handle it and not only handle it, but get better from it. Symbolically, yes going into the break and to be able to be .500 so we can almost have a second start to the season mentally probably means something.”
The Heat used 18 different starting lineups in the first 36 games because of injury and COVID-19 issues that kept various players out.
Leading man Jimmy Butler missed 14 games, free agent addition Avery Bradley was unavailable for 25 games, veteran guard Goran Dragic missed 14 games, second-year guard Tyler Herro missed 11 games, and center Meyers Leonard played in only three games before he sustained a season-ending shoulder injury.
“We had like  lineup changes,” Haslem said. “These are not excuses. They’re just things that we had to adjust to. For us, one thing we did is we just stayed with it. We didn’t feel good about the way we were playing. Nobody was happy about the results we were getting. A lot of times in this league, it’s easy for teams to check out mentally and we didn’t. We stayed with it, starting with Spo and the coaching staff and trickling to me and down to the team.
“Now we’re starting to figure it out and we’re starting to adjust. The fact that we stayed mentally tough, it kept us in position to make this run that we were able to make the last couple of games.”
Along the way, there was a pair of January losses to the Philadelphia 76ers that the Heat entered with the NBA minimum of eight available players because of positive COVID-19 cases and ensuing contact tracing depleting its roster. One Heat game was postponed during the first half of the season because of the virus, a Jan. 10 road game against the Boston Celtics that has been rescheduled for May.
The NBA’s health and safety protocols and this season’s compacted schedule changed the way teams around the league operate. But Haslem believes it especially affected the Heat.
“We pride ourselves on being hard working. We didn’t have the opportunity to practice the way we would like to and the way we’re used to and have become accustomed to,” Haslem said. “We pride ourselves on culture and being a family, and we’re not able to hang out the way we usually do due to the COVID restrictions. So there’s a lot of things that are different for us that we use as strengths to bring us together on the basketball court and have the success that we had, and it was taken away from us. So we really had to get our footing and adjust and understand how to attack this season mentally before physically just like everybody else. But even more so for us, because it is so much a part of what we do and our DNA.”
That doesn’t mean Haslem saw the Heat’s slow start coming. Nobody in the organization did after returning 13 players from last season’s roster that finished two wins short of an NBA championship.
“Everybody was surprised. Nobody expected to start the season like that,” Haslem said. “But I put a lot of thought in this, man. I sit around at night and I brainstorm, and I try to put myself in everybody’s position. I have true compassion for those guys that actually went out there and played and laid it on the line out there in the bubble, and then having that quick turnaround and having to get back ready mentally. For me to get back mentally, it was tough. So I can understand how tough it was for those guys even more so.
“As a leader and as a coaching staff, I think Spo started it and it trickles down to me, it’s about just having some compassion. We want to fight, fight, fight. But you also gotta understand that there’s a human condition that comes with this and there’s a mental health part that comes with this. Everybody had to fight through that early, and we’re no different than everybody else.”
A quick statistical check shows the Heat arrived at the All-Star break with the NBA’s 25th-best offensive rating, seventh-best defensive rating and 22nd-best net rating.
That’s not where Miami wants to be, but things are trending in a more positive direction since Butler returned from his extended absence a month ago. The Heat owns the league’s 20th-best offensive rating, second-best defensive rating and seventh-best net rating since the start of February.
“People think it’s just a game. Yes, it is just a game but this is our life,” Haslem said. “We live this. So we take losing seriously, man. We take it seriously. We’re not a typical NBA team that says, ‘Oh, it’s just one loss. On to the next one.’ We take that [stuff] serious around here.”
After playing 28 games in the last 52 days, the Heat now gets a much-needed break. It will be a quiet and restful week off for the Heat, which doesn’t have a player participating in an All-Star event this season.
Spoelstra said the gym will remain open during the break at AmericanAirlines Arena, but he also wants players to rest physically and mentally before beginning a second-half schedule that includes 36 games in 67 days.
Even after its early season struggles, the sixth-place Heat is just one game behind the fourth-place Celtics but also only two games ahead of the 11th-place Atlanta Hawks in the East standings.
“Just understand who we are individually,” Haslem said of the plea he made to his teammates after the Feb. 3 loss to the Wizards. “Before we even understand who we are collectively, understand who you are individually and make sure you can still be that person. If you’re that person, then everybody will come together and be who we are collectively. So everybody dig deep, look in the mirror and bring back that [expletive]. Whoever that [expletive] was for you at that time that got you to this point, we need that person back.
“If we’re going to lose games or we’re not going to make the playoffs, it’s not going to be because we quit on each other. And we all knew that we could do a little more.”