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Celtics-Heat Game 5: Erik Spoelstra vs. the depths of pressure

Jun 6, 2012, 10:59 AM EDT

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics - Game Three Getty Images

The thing you have to understand is that I don’t think you can really study Erik Spoelstra and think he’s a bad coach. His preparation, his devotion, his work ethic, his approach, most of his tactics, and his overall intelligence make it pretty hard to validate what so many people say about him, just because he’s at the head of a team they hate, one he didn’t assemble, ask for, or prematurely celebrate with.

And he seems like a genuinely great guy.

Which is why it’s really hard to write this, and I take zero pleasure in it. Spoelstra’s spent his entire career in pro basketball in Miami. He worked his way up from video guy sleeping in the tape room to head coach of the most talked about team in the world.  So the fact that he may wind up being the fall guy is just brutal.

But there’s just no way around it. Erik Spoelstra has gotten worked in this series. Now, that’s no terrible damnation. Phil Jackson was worked by Rivers in 2008. Stan Van Gundy in 2010. Rivers is a brilliant motivator who has also gotten really incredibly good at tactical adjustments. But in a series like this you look at what cost Miami a game they could have won. And Spoelstra’s decisions account for a lot.

For starters, Joel Anthony was a DNP-CD Tuesday night. Anthony wasn’t going to make a huge difference in the game. But in a game where the Heat were slaughtered late by offensive rebounds and Kevin Garnett inside, Anthony might have helped. Instead, Spoelstra elected to play Udonis Haslem heavy minutes, despite Chris Bosh saying he was ready. They needed a presence inside, Spo turned to reliable, safe Haslem, who the Celtics funneled the ball to and watched him drop it. This isn’t Haslem’s fault, he’s not an offensive weapon (and surely Anthony would have done no better at catching and finishing), but he’s also out-sized. Spoelstra wanted a small lineup to battle the Celtics’ small lineup, not factoring that with KG, their small lineup was bigger than Miami’s.

Since Game 2, Spoelstra hasn’t been able to counter the Celtics’ use of Garnett and Boston’s counter to the Heat’s front. When the Celtics adjusted to the Heat fronting Garnett, Spoelstra did not throw different looks at them. He did not switch up his coverage. He just did more of it. And watched the 900-year-old Garnett decimate them. Garnett has played his face off in these Conference Finals, beyond what he’s done all year and is an all-time great. The Heat also opened up a welcome sign for him in the paint.

And then late, he’s running plays with LeBron James standing in the corner. Some of this is on James. But even looking back to last year’s semifinals when James nailed key three-pointers over Boston, they were off the dribble, gauging the defense. Spot-up? Not so much. But those were the looks James got in the fourth. They needed to activate their MVP, create space by any means necessary. Instead they let Wade trying and slice through four Celtics defenders. Another fail.

The motivation matters, too. Spoelstra told Doris Burke on ESPN in the interview before the fourth that Boston had “got into (Miami’s) mind a little bit.” He actually said this. On national television. In the Eastern Conference Finals. It’s not that he said it, it’s that he was so obviously wrapped up in it happening. The Heat were frustrated and falling apart and Spoelstra couldn’t pull them out of it. That matters. Maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe they should be able to on their own. But he’s part of it.

So Spoelstra has been worked over, and it’s a crushing assessment of a guy who never asked for this. But he’s here, it’s his responsibility, and if someone is likely to take the fall this summer should the probable happen and Boston close them out in Game 6, it’s going to be Spoelstra. Spoelstra didn’t collapse, the Heat did. But Spoelstra just hasn’t done enough to help the Heat win this series. Someone has to be held accountable.

And we know it won’t be LeBron.

  1. sailbum7 - Jun 6, 2012 at 6:09 PM

    Let’s face it, the Heat were not out-played by the Celtics, they were out coached. Doc Rivers is an incredible coach who has the respect of his TEAM. They all listen to Doc and do what he wants them to do. The prima donnas on the Heat think they all know better than their coach and do not listen. The players have no respect for Spoelsta which makes him completely ineffective as a head coach. Whether that is his fault or his players’ is debatable, but either way he is not able to get the job done.

    • scalfor3 - Jun 6, 2012 at 7:23 PM

      they were both out played and out coached actually

  2. paulhargis53 - Jun 6, 2012 at 6:39 PM

    avermaver: Before this series, it was said,Heat will sweep, Heat in 5, and finally Heat in 6. Here they are in the drivers seat.
    If they get past the Heat, which seems likely, I wouldn’t count them out against either the Spurs or the Thunder.
    When will you people give them the respect they deserve and have earned.

  3. baredon - Jun 6, 2012 at 6:47 PM

    WTF… If you cant handle some pressure… Pack your ass and go home…

  4. barryblogs - Jun 6, 2012 at 7:13 PM

    THIS SERIES ISN’T OVER! I say that as a Celtics fan – after two games of both series OKC and the Celtics were dead, no way they could beat the Spurs or the Heat. Now you are firing coaches after 5 games. I hope the Celtics close it out tomorrow but there are no guarantees…and if Wade makes the 3 pointer at end of game 4 we’re not even having this discussion.
    Cool it. These are two quality teams beating on each other with every game close. Let it play out before the blame game begins.

  5. ezwriter69 - Jun 6, 2012 at 7:16 PM

    “…when James nailed key three-pointers over Boston, they were off the dribble, gauging the defense. Spot-up? Not so much.”
    Interesting, that’s 180 degrees, diametrically opposite from what Magic said last night, as he said that James was a good 3-point shooter when squared up, but not off the dribble. Then again, it’s Magic Johnson, what’s he know about basketball, right? You certainly can’t both be right, so maybe for his sake you ought to send him this article, straighten him out? I’m sure he’d appreciate your expertise… he’s not exactly a student of the game, he’d love to know where he is so wrong, to keep from embarrassing himself like that.

  6. BigBeachBall - Jun 6, 2012 at 7:30 PM

    The Heat will have to wait…. not 5, not 6, not 7…..

  7. lakerluver - Jun 6, 2012 at 7:55 PM

    Riley needs to share some of the blame for the Heatles being the biggest frauds since Milli Vanilli because he hired Spo and brought the Little 3 together. He had to know he couldn’t put decent role players around them for the pennies left over after signing the Little 3 to max level contracts. Riley arrogantly thought he could parade the Little 3 out with 2 scrubs and they would blitz the rest of the league. And where the heck was he when the Heatles had a championship celebration BEFORE they had even played a single game?! How did he allow that bush league crap to take place?!! The whole franchise is a failure if (when) the Heatles lose tomorrow. I can’t wait to see the tears flow AGAIN.

  8. hooopsluver - Jun 7, 2012 at 2:35 AM

    Spo needs to go. Remember in 2000 when Rambus was the coach of the lakers with Shaq and Kobe. They were swept from the playoffs multiple years in a row by Utah or Portland despite having the 2 most dominant player in the NBA. Shaq was at his prime and Kobe was unguardable but they couldn’t beat the other TEAMS. It was the coach’s fault. Once they switched to a coach who can win the respect of the team and brings in a defense and offense system (triangle), lakers won 3 straight championship and dominated the league. They won the first ring with P. Jackson in his first year as their coach.
    Strategy, preparation, and also the prior experience of winning a championship is needed to get the Lakers going and the Heat needed the same thing.

    Go back to 2005 with Van Gundy (no championship experience) as coach. The team made it to the conf final and lost to Detroit with Shaq and wade. Riley (5 rings) took over mid year in 2006, and they won the championship.

    Spo is too green to coach this team. He is a deer in the headlight. He spends too much time trying to sound smart but has no strategy, and no offense system. He is a good defensive coach but with Bron and Wade, Miami should be the best offense.

    In the triangle, Bron and wade would have a system that does not require a traditional guard, and also allows both to post up alot. The offense is also a zone buster, something Spo has no clue on how to beat. Miami stands around the perimeter whenever Boston goes to the zone defense.

    Again Spo is a nice guy but not the caliber coach the heat needs. Jerry sloan ( hall of fame coach) would be a good choice because he can max the pic n roll with wad and bron.

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