Monday, June 11, 2012

Spoelstra receives help from unlikely source - USA TODAY

MIAMI â€" At various points in the past two seasons, it's been time to get rid of Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.

Lynne Sladky, AP

Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra has the Heat back in the NBA Finals for a second consecutive year.

Bring in someone who can better manage LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and get more out of them if that is somehow possible. Bring in a coach with a big personality, a guy who can command respect, as if Spoelstra can't.

It was time to start looking for a new coach when the Heat were 9-8 last season. It was time when the Heat were down 2-1 to the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. It was time when the Celtics took a 3-2 series lead in the conference finals.

Yet, Spoelstra, who signed a two-year extension before this season, has led the Heat to the NBA Finals for the second consecutive season.

After Heat forward LeBron James, no other person in the Heat organization is more scrutinized and analyzed than Spoelstra. He was under pressure from the start - a young coach in his third season in 2010-11 - and expectations are nothing short of a championship.

"Erik does a terrific job," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said Saturday night after losing Game 7 to the Heat. "I wish he got more credit for what he does with that group. I would guess this wouldn't be the easiest for him."

It is not a coincidence Rivers had kind words for Spoelstra. The Heat and Celtics have played each other in the playoffs three consecutive seasons, and the Heat won the series last season and this season. They have studied the Xs and Os of each other's offensive and defensive schemes and probably know them as well as they know any opponent's tendencies.

Last summer at a coaching clinic run by Celtics assistant coach Kevin Eastman and veteran coach Brendan Suhr, Spoelstra and Rivers were featured speakers and spent time together - not as rivals but as members of a small fraternity.

Rivers is a masterful Xs and Os coach, but Spoelstra is good, too.

At the clinic, Rivers told coaches - manly college and high school coaches -that getting players to buy in is more important the schemes. He said listening to players is important, too. Spoelstra and Rivers spoke privately, too, and Spoelstra had an interest in how Rivers managed personalities.

Rivers has four big personalities - Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. Spoelstra has James, Wade and Bosh.

"While he's highly regarded in his schematics and Xs and Os, I was more curious about the management of personalities," Spoelstra said. "That's really ultimately what it's about in this league. While all those other things are important, the day-to-day, how you motivate, how you manage all the different challenges and personalities is really probably the biggest part of the job."

In the long run, Rivers has made Spoelstra a better coach. Spoelstra and the Heat's coaching staff had to work and solve Boston's game plan. It wasn't easy. River and his staff are top notch and they prod the Celtics into outstanding execution. Spoelstra and his staff countered Rivers and his staff and then - here's the important part - taught the Heat how to execute.

"He's pushed our coaching staff," Spoelstra said. "He's pushed me to be a better coach."

Spoelstra, 41, coaches in a difficult spot. Win, and it's because he has James, Wade and Bosh. Lose, and it's how come he can't win with those three. It is more difficult than it looks.

Spoelstra needed to find a way to incorporate two perimeter players who love to dominate the ball with a big man who is just as comfortable 15 feet from the basket as he is 3 feet. He had to teach James and Wade how play without always having the ball.

The Heat's offense has evolved and some of what Wade and James did against the Pacers and Celtics was unstoppable. When they attack and make shots, the defense eventually succumbs. But Spoelstra won't receive the credit he deserves. Not one reporter or broadcaster out of 119 gave Spoelstra a first-, second-, or third-place vote for coach of the year this season.

In the Pacers series, Miami needed to adjust to playing without Bosh. It didn't happen immediately, and the Pacers took a 2-1 series lead. The room grew smaller for Heat. It happened when Boston went up 3-2.

While no job is 100% safe in the NBA, it's understated how close Spoelstra and Heat president Pat Riley are. When the Heat announced Spoelstra's extension, Riley called Spoelstra an "absolute member of this family."

Spoelstra manages to deflect outside criticism with quirky aphorisms.

"That's somebody else's truth."

"All the noise and everything out there, you can get whiplash if you allow yourself to."

After the Indiana series, James said, "Coach made some unbelievable adjustments in the last three games to let us do what we did on the floor. Just like he said we played spectacular, he coached spectacular and put us in position to win."

And when Boston had the Heat reeling after Game 5, James said, "I don't need to defend him. I'm here. We got a lot of respect for Spo. We have all the confidence he's going to give us a game plan to help us win."

The buy in Rivers talked about? Despite the "noise" and "someone else's truths," Spoelstra has the buy in he needs - from players and management.

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