MIAMI — For maybe the first time in the Miami Heat's historic second half, head coach Erik Spoelstra didn't have an answer.
His team had just completed the league's first rise from being 13 games below .500—it was 19 under in this case—back to an even 41-41. The Heat, who were 11-30 at the midway point of the 2016-17 season, had secured their 30th victory since Jan. 17, a feat bettered only by the superpower Golden State Warriors.
But none of it mattered. Or rather, none of it changed the fact Miami's season-ending 110-102 win over the Washington Wizards was just that—a season-ender.
By way of a 2-1 season-series loss to the Chicago Bulls, decided way back during a Dec. 10 matchup in which Josh McRoberts and Derrick Williams both logged 22-plus minutes, the Heat had seen their playoff ticket ripped out of their hands.
"It just doesn't feel right," Spoelstra said during an emotional postgame session in which he struggled for nearly 15 minutes to find explanations that never came. "It doesn't feel like the basketball gods shined down on us.
"... This feels like a loss in the Finals. The way we've been going for the last three months, that's how emotional it is in the locker room."
Most tears were kept behind closed doors, but a few made their way into the media sessions. The finality of the season carried more weight than the typical curtain drop, because it came so suddenly and—on several levels—unexpectedly.
But maybe this ending was never supposed to make sense. The entire story never did.
The Heat played the full season without the team's highest-paid player and lone proven star, Chris Bosh, whose present and future with the club were wiped out by another battle with blood clots. Miami's highest-profile prospect, Justise Winslow, last suited up on Dec. 30, when the Heat sported an abysmal 10-24 mark, and he suffered a shoulder injury that ended his run.
Miami's only hope was to rally around a roster that essentially consisted of a series of restoration projects. Every player had been devalued at one point (or, in most cases, more) in his basketball career. And a lot of them spent the year under the microscope with contracts set to expire upon its conclusion.
It seemed if the Heat were going to grow anything organically, it would be a few weeds sprouting up between cracks in the pavement.
"The biggest thing we were thinking about and planning for as a staff coming out of training camp was how were we going to get a bunch of strangers—guys on free-agent contract years, guys with every reason not to buy into a team and a lot of departures from people who knew what our culture is about—how were we going to get a group together that would really care about each other and play for each other?" Spoelstra said.
And yet, as the Heat scrambled through an improbable climb from irrelevant to dangerous, cohesiveness became their greatest strength.
"You cannot achieve more as a group, chemistry-wise," Goran Dragic said. "Everybody is on the same page. Everybody is thinking the same. Probably, because of that, it is even tougher to swallow that we didn't make the playoffs."
The Heat still aren't sure what happened.
Yes, they were keenly aware of their precarious situation—although they made a pact not to do a second of scoreboard watching before their own contest closed. And yes, they knew those bad losses that got away—home against the depleted Knicks, dropping two games in three days to the 76ers and Magic—put them in this position.
But they had defied the odds for nearly three months straight. Why would this be any different?
"By no means did we think we were a perfect team, but we thought that we had the energy and the momentum going in the right direction that we would find a way," Spoelstra said.
During the Heat's second-half push, they counted victories over the Warriors, Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards. They wore the distinct markings of a champion, with top-10 efficiency rankings on both offense (eighth) and defense (third).
Miami had elite credentials and viewed itself as an elite force if it made the dance.
"This group had enough of an edge and a stubbornness to just do something special," Hassan Whiteside said.
"It didn't matter who we would've been going up against, we would've felt like we had a great chance to win it," Josh Richardson echoed. "So, that definitely sucks knowing that."
"If we [would have faced] Boston, it would be a tough series, a seven-game series," Dragic said.
Is that machismo talking? Perhaps. The Heat were never the same once they lost Dion Waiters to a severe ankle sprain, and he acknowledged even if he was able to return, he would have dealt with discomfort until the offseason.
But there's no way to know for sure.
This much is clear—no Eastern Conference team played better basketball over the last three months. That the true significance of that fact will never show makes it tough to process the information.
"It just feels so off right now," Spoelstra said. "It feels like we could do some damage in that postseason. I feel like we could be playing for a while."
Instead, the Heat are embarking on a premature vacation, left only with considerably worse draft lottery odds than when they began this ascent.
That's not to suggest this was a meaningless feat. The Heat made history, validated Spoelstra's coaching genius in the eyes of any remaining doubters and saw franchise pillars like Whiteside, Dragic, Richardson and Tyler Johnson prove they can help carry this team to something great.
But there still isn't a definite superstar on the roster, nor any fool-proof ways to acquire one. And this run was keyed by several players with uncertain futures—Waiters, James Johnson, Willie Reed and Wayne Ellington could all reach free agency.
"We might not ever play together again with this group," Richardson said. "We were actually talking about it. It's tough knowing that going into this offseason, but it's a business at the end of the day."
That business may keep the basketball world from ever figuring out what this team was or what it could have been.
"I just wish we had a little bit more time," Reed said.
The 2016-17 Heat were at times abysmal and dominant, rarely anything in between. They proved the success of Miami's culture, but also muddled its path to a top-tier prospect to form with it. They could have been a handful and then some in the postseason, but they never secured their invitation.
So, maybe the takeaway from all of this is no takeaway at all. It might not move the needle much in one direction or the other if the positives cancel out the negatives.
But here's what we know—a mishmash band of misfits brought excitement and intrigue to a season that appeared for months it would be devoid of both. That means something, even if it's nothing more than a wild three-month ride.
"I have been on some championship teams, but for me this was probably the most fun team I have had the opportunity to play on," Udonis Haslem said.
All quotes obtained firsthand. Statistics used courtesy of NBA.com.
Zach Buckley covers the Miami Heat for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.