As a new season begins, Miami Heat players and coaches remember how challenging last season was.
The daily COVID-19 testing, the feeling of isolation on the road, playing in mostly empty arenas and the long list of strict health and safety protocols they had to follow.
But what made the Heat’s situation unique from the rest of the league (other than the Los Angeles Lakers) was the fact that it entered the season after a pandemic-shortened offseason that lasted 71 days, which is the fewest between the end of a season and the start of the next season in NBA, MLB, NHL and NFL history, according to Elias Sports. The Heat lost to the Lakers in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Oct. 11, 2020, and Miami began team practices in early December before opening the regular season on Dec. 23, 2020.
“Everything sucked about it,” Heat team captain Udonis Haslem said to the Miami Herald ahead of opening the 2021-22 season against the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday night at FTX Arena. “But that’s no excuse. We pivoted and maneuvered the best way we could. But we just weren’t able to get it done in the end.”
The Heat, after finishing with a 40-32 regular-season record to claim the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference last season, was swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the Bucks in May — just seven months after falling two games short of a championship in the Walt Disney World bubble.
“A lot, if I’m being honest,” Heat center Bam Adebayo said when asked how much the short 2020 offseason impacted the Heat last season. “I feel like it impacted us a lot. I feel like more physically than mentally. I feel like everybody mentally knew what to do, knew where to be. It was just our bodies were just like two steps slow, a step slow and I credit everybody that we still came together. Dudes going in and out because of COVID, and still trying to find a cohesive playing style.”
With such a brief break between seasons, Heat forward Duncan Robinson remembers training camp ahead of the 2020-21 season “felt like practice from the bubble.”
“It was just a lot of the same guys, a lot of the same feelings,” Robinson said. “We never really had the opportunity to step away and reevaluate. So that definitely posed a challenge. Then when you feel like you haven’t gotten away, as the days go on and on and on, it starts to kind of wear on you more and more. Everybody was kind of going through it.”
It was a bumpy season from the start for the Heat following its improbable run to the Finals as the fifth seed. At one point last season, Miami stood at 7-14.
The Heat used 18 different starting lineups in the first 36 games because of injury and COVID-19 issues that kept various players out. Among them: Leading man Jimmy Butler missed 20 games, including 12 of the first 18 because of a sprained ankle and the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
There were a pair of early-season 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.
“It made us who we are today,” Heat guard Tyler Herro said of the challenges faced last season. “So at the end of the day, it was a negative and a positive. I took it for what it was. It made me stronger, it made me better and I’m cool with what happened last year. I’m over it.”
But Haslem, 41, is not over one thing. It still bothers him that some discredit the Heat’s run to the 2020 Finals because it came in the bubble. That criticism only grew louder after the Heat was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs just months later.
“I think the big misconception is that we were bubble busts or whatever. That’s ridiculous,” Haslem said. “Everybody has to line up and everybody has to play the game. Don’t get mad at us because we were more mentally tough than the rest of [them]. You can quote me on that. I’m tired of people saying we were bubble busts.
“Let me just elaborate on that one more time. You got people in the bubble frying chicken, going to pool parties. The bubble for a lot of people, they stepped in there trying to make it like home. Trying to be comfortable. That’s where they went wrong. We were getting comfortable being uncomfortable. It was never a situation where we tried to make it like home or wanted it to be home. We understood the approach we had to take. Anybody that knows anything about winning championships in basketball, it’s just as much mental as it is physical.”
With close to a full offseason this past summer, new faces on the roster like Kyle Lowry, Markieff Morris and P.J. Tucker, and looser COVID-19 protocols for vaccinated players, Heat players say they feel rejuvenated entering this season.
“I think it’s going to be a great approach,” Haslem said. “I think the approach is just different mentally. Not that last season’s approach was bad. I think we just had a little bit more time to exhale and approach it in a different manner. We don’t feel the pressure to just pick up right where we left. I think all of us felt the pressure to pick up right where we left off from the Finals last year. The reality was we didn’t have the same team to pick up right where we left off and physically and mentally, we may not have been fully recovered right where we left off.”
The Bucks announced that they’ll be without starters Jrue Holiday (right heel contusion) and Brook Lopez (back soreness) for Thursday’s game against the Heat. Milwauke also ruled out Donte DiVincenzo (left ankle recovery), Rodney Hood (right foot soreness), Semi Ojeleye (left calf strain) and Bobby Portis (left hamstring strain).
While the Bucks will be without six players, the only Heat player on the injury report for Thursday’s game is guard Victor Oladipo, who will miss the contest as he continues to recover from right knee surgery.