Philadelphia — In the visiting locker room, they were trying to make it matter, even if it really didn't.
That's what you do when you're a defending champion embarking on another endless, exhausting challenge, and you don't want any sloth or slippage to seep in, even if you still have months and months and months to expunge it.
That's what you do, when you're the mighty Miami Heat, and yet you somehow managed to spot the undermanned Philadelphia 76ers the first 19 points, and then you somehow squandered your own nine-point lead entering the fourth.
You say things like Erik Spoelstra said late Wednesday night, after a most improbable 114-110 defeat:
"We earned that. We know that. We came to play in this game. We did not come to compete."
But, on this night, the story was not about them. It was not about Roger Mason Jr.'s struggle in spot starting duty for an already-resting Dwyane Wade.
It was not about Shane Battier's seven missed three-pointers after he hadn't seemed to miss for a month. It was not even about a clearly weary LeBron James' stumbling down the stretch, re-entering with the Heat leading, 100-97, and then missing five of six shots while committing two turnovers and two fouls.
It was not about them because they will have other nights, nights that do matter. Those nights, we know, may not come until late spring.
But in the other locker room, this night mattered plenty. It was about hope, however fleeting. It was about countering the claims and perceptions and proving that even if an organization—for rebuilding reasons—doesn't care about competing this season, the players, the pawns in that process, can still show some professional pride.
That's what the 76ers did Wednesday, and it was actually something to see.
And who knows, maybe we even saw the start of something special, the first steps of a potential basketball star in a city that's been starved for one since Allen Iverson's electric first stint soured some. Iverson was on hand Wednesday night, after belatedly, officially announcing his retirement early in the day and after a video montage played on the video screen, he blew a kiss and raised his hand.
But not even Iverson's brilliant 1996 debut—30 points and six assists in a loss to Milwaukee—matched what the 76ers' 22-year-old rookie Michael Carter-Williams did with Iverson watching.
"Twelve assists, one turnover, nine steals, 22 points, are you kidding me?" 76ers coach Brett Brown said of the Syracuse product. "Seven rebounds."
With three of those points, three of those rebounds, two of those assists and one of those steals coming in the final 2:44, when Philadelphia outscored Miami, 7-2.
"I'm very proud of him," 76ers forward Thaddeus Young said. "He's shown every sign and indication that he can be a great player in this league. Tonight, going against the Miami Heat, a team that's going to pressure you to death, get up into you and try to force you into turnovers...and I think he did a very good job of going out there and maintaining his composure, making shots, and just kind of willing us on."
In doing so, Carter-Williams not only upstaged the present-day James, but the one who—10 years and one day earlier—debuted with 25 points, six rebounds, nine assists, four steals and two turnovers in a loss to Sacramento.
"He had a great game, a great game," James said. "He had a great stat line. I couldn't think of a better way to start your NBA career."
After looking lost at times in summer league, Carter-Williams never did Wednesday.
"I definitely felt more confident," Carter-Williams said. "I was figuring out their defense a little bit, and able to get steals, and my shot was on. Our guys were cutting to the hoop, and I was getting good passes to them, and the guys were finishing. So everything was clicking."
He did not appear rattled, not even at the open, instead, rattling the rim after stealing Mason's errant pass on the Heat's first possession.
What of jamming over James?
"I knew I had to finish strong," Carter-Williams said. "If not, it was probably going to be blocked."
Later, he would steal the pass from James.
"He turned his back, and for him, we have to play great team defense," Carter-Williams said. "I just saw him turn his back, and I was able to just jump when he wasn't looking."
Other times, they were face to face.
"During the game, he just said, 'Way to play. Great job,'" Carter-Williams said. "That means a lot coming from a player like him."
Was there any other conversation?
"There was a little bit, a little jibber jabber, nothing crazy, though," Carter-Williams said. "It's tough. I'm a big talker out there. But a guy like him, you don't want him to get going. So you want to keep him on a smooth pedestal and not get him riled up, because then things can get pretty ugly."
He said all of this with a smile, beads of sweat all over his baby face, appearing more affected by the bright camera lights and large media crowd than by anything the Heat had done to him earlier. He sped through careful cliches until the session was over, and he could go celebrate with family.
But he did allow this much:
"It couldn't have gone any better," Carter-Williams said.
For him, for his team, it couldn't have mattered more.
For the Heat, it was a blip, on the way to Brooklyn.
Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat and the NBA for Bleacher Report.
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