There was a moment in the second half of this signature Miami Heat night, this beautiful Thursday night, when the television camera swung to a seated Pat Riley, who arched his neck and lifted his chin and offered the angular idea of an eagle surveying his constructed world.
What was it the poet wrote, about this being your created world — about holding everything that’s in it?
Below on the court in Game 6, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was a star again, not just by strategic ideas like triple-teaming Philadelphia’s best into submission but small-name players like Max Strus and Gabe Vincent outplaying their pedigreed Philadelphia counterparts, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey.
If you’re tired of egos, exhausted by money, frustrated by the laissez-faire world of pro sports, this was your night. This is your team. This is the antidote of so much that turns you off.
Strus and Vincent climbed the hard way. Strus played in what we’ll call Division 0 — Lewis College outside Chicago — before going undrafted. Vincent, too, went undrafted and played for the Stockton Kings. Not the Sacramento Kings of the NBA. The Stockton Kings of the developmental G League.
They started with belief in themselves and nothing else. Do you have that in yourself? Can you ride that to a built career?
Strus and Vincent, these two non-names, didn’t play against the $171 million contract of James Harden and first-round pick of James Maxey in this Heat win in the second-round series.
The outplayed them.
They flat-out embarrassed them.
“I think that was Max’s first double-double in his life,’ the Heat’s pit bull, P.J. Tucker, said in looking at a statistics sheet showing Strus had 20 points and 11 rebounds.
Strus had a similar double-double the previous game, Tucker was told.
“I think that was the first two double-doubles in his life,’ Tucker said without a pause.
That wasn’t even the signature of this night. It was Strus being asked about playing like this, defining himself in this manner, and saying, “This is too new to me, too new to me, I’m not ready to answer that question yet.”
“It’s one of the biggest not only of my career, but of my life,’ he said. “This is one of those moments you want to be in, being a basketball player and doing what we do for a living.”
He was talking of the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
“I’m super excited,’ he said. “I want to start tomorrow.”
Look, the Heat are led by Jimmy Butler, who as a big-name and big-money player was a central story this series with Philadelphia. Butler played for Philadelphia, moved to the Heat and defined the difference in the franchises. Philadelphia is soft, uncertain and invested in Tobias Harris.
“Tobias Harris over me?” Butler said after this night.
The Heat is tough and unflinching.
As much as his Butler’s two-way toughness, Strus and Vincent define this blue-ribbon team. Spoelstra and his staff developed them with the kind of open mind — reach your ceiling — that’s often missing. Riley gave them a minimal two-way contract last season and — you want to talk smarts? — a minimal, two-year contract starting this season.
That means about $2 million in the players’ pockets. Who in in the real world would turn that down? Only now they’re either outplaying this idea or the definition of why the Heat is a blue-ribbon franchise. They built hungry players into front-line players.
You have to love how Spoelstra talks. Development of younger players isn’t, “linear,’ he said. There were, “incremental steps.” They were questioned by fans — “Things that didn’t resonate with me,’ Spoelstra said, mentioning Vincent’s shooting percentage.
Vincent had never been a pure point guard before. He grew. He learned. He was the best player on the floor for the Nigerian team against Team USA. Strus was a summer-league star. Some franchises say this doesn’t matter. The Heat always show it does.
This is an NBA playoffs without a roll call of big stars. There is Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who might be waiting for the Heat in the Eastern Conference championship series.
But who else? Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid. He’s gone, dispatched by the Heat. There’s no other stand-alone star in the East. That’s the world the Heat thrives, the one Riley and Spoelstra built
They once were the franchise of The Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Now they don’t have a player drafted in the top 10 on their team. They’re defined by The Undrafted Two. Can you appreciate that? Even love it?
They start undrafted players in the playoffs like Strus and Vincent. They win because of them, too. Riley, surveying his world in Game 6 against Philadelphia, had to be pleased by this. But not too pleased. The question becomes if small names can keep winning big.