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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. gmen4life33 - Jun 6, 2012 at 11:13 AM

    Thought Spo was being smart, and was going to put in Bosh with 6 mins left to close out. Then thought he was being clever, and was going to put Bosh in with 4 mins so he could go 100% every play without getting tired. Then thought Spo has no idea what he is doing.

    • skids003 - Jun 6, 2012 at 1:49 PM

      Wow, I don’t remember seeing the coach miss a single shot last night. What a terrible article. He can draw it up all he wants, these prima donnas are going to do what they want. It’s not his fault, but maybe the babies will get the owner to hire Spike Lee to coach them.

      • gmen4life33 - Jun 6, 2012 at 1:59 PM

        Dude, Anthony plays the best def on Garnett, and he didnt play. Bosh was playing well, and got 3 minutes in the second half, inlcuding 0 in 4th (it was obvious they could have used his size and shooting). Lebron was standingin the corner on the final plays, when he is not a spot-up shooter.

        Theses are all coaching decision. No he didnt miss a shot, becuase coaches dont shoot lol. And even if his players arent listening to him, thats STILL the coaches fault for losing his team.

        Wade/Lebron deserve a lot of blame for comaplining to refs and not getting back on D, but no doubt Spo is getting out coached BAD

  2. buffalowned - Jun 6, 2012 at 11:19 AM

    He consistently gets out coached by teams with less talent. No excuse for being the 2nd seed 2 years in a row with their roster. No consistency in the rotation or starting lineup and he can never seem to spark this team when they need it. Not playing bosh in the 4th last night was a disgrace he only played 14 mins and looked good. Spoelstra should and will be fired if the heat lose this series

  3. ss3walkman - Jun 6, 2012 at 11:47 AM

    Spoelstra out. Riley in.

  4. charlutes - Jun 6, 2012 at 11:58 AM

    I don’t know why there has to be 3 paragraphs of pre cursor. Spo is an NBA coach who’s never impressed, and its as simple as that. He has the better team and he’s losing the series. No apology needed.

  5. kcsuperbowlbound - Jun 6, 2012 at 12:11 PM

    What the heck do you expect when you make a video editor a head coach… Phil Jackson would win championship every year with this team…And I say that hating Phil Jackson

  6. limonadamas - Jun 6, 2012 at 12:12 PM

    There are a LOT of similarities between Spoelstra and Mike Brown, no? Both worked their way up from scouting, both learned under legendary coaches (Popovich and Riley), both work their butts off and have impeccable preparation… and both have difficulty making good adjustments on the fly and/or motivating their players to make the necessary sacrifices needed to win a championship.

    As Doc Rivers’ own coaching career has shown us, coaches themselves are often not finished products.. But the best coaches all demand and receive respect from their players (and often their opponents). It’s not always about being liked, but it’s about being respected to lead.

  7. sprinter293 - Jun 6, 2012 at 12:27 PM

    Yes, Spoelstra has been out coached. However, I also think that the Miami Heat is a very flawed team from the start. They have two guys that play much the same way (James and Wade). Bosh when healthy is a all-star, but not a superstar. After that you have mostly scrubs and guy past their prime. Even if they survive this series somehow, they have no chance against OKC or the Spurs. Point is a question everynight, Post is the same way and they don’t have a guy off the bench that can give them instant offence (A Manu or a Harden).

  8. ahemahem - Jun 6, 2012 at 1:01 PM

    I didn’t follow this sentence: “They needed a presence inside, Spo turned to reliable, safe Haslem, who the Celtics funneled the ball to and watched him drop it.”

    • aqzi - Jun 6, 2012 at 1:28 PM

      I’m not apologizing for the editing here — it bothers me as much as the next guy — but as I understood it, that sentence meant:

      Miami needed an offensive presence inside, Spoelstra chose Haslem. The Celtics altered their defense to leave Haslem some more space (“who the Celtics funneled the ball to”) and take away space from bigger offensive threats like LeBron and Wade. Haslem couldn’t operate effectively with the extra space he was given on offense (the Celtics “watched him drop it [the ball]“).

  9. jtchernak - Jun 6, 2012 at 1:03 PM

    Pierce after hitting the three said to lebron “I got your five six seven here bitches” haha too good

  10. emaimo80 - Jun 6, 2012 at 1:18 PM

    Spo in over his head! Riley step in now!!!! Like today!!!

    • dgforreal - Jun 6, 2012 at 1:34 PM

      Is this even possible? With the way things were looking last night I half expected Riley to come down to the bench tell him to hit the showers while he took over.

  11. cranespy - Jun 6, 2012 at 1:29 PM

    Spo will NOT be fired…….Lebron’s time in So Fla is nearly over…..Lebron will be sent packing in a 3 or 4 team BLOCKBUSTER trade…..and Miami wins the title….next year ….. sans Lebron!

    • gostlcards5 - Jun 6, 2012 at 1:55 PM

      You’re crazy. I do agree that Lebron and Wade have the same game, basically, so if they were going to do it, it would be one of the two, so that they could get some pieces and/or money to use on pieces. But, if the Heat were to trade anyone, it would be Wade. He’s 30 (an old 30), and Lebron is 27. Wade is great (at times), but Lebron is the best player in the game.

    • michflaguy - Jun 6, 2012 at 2:05 PM

      Hey ‘cranespy’…your comment has to be the dumbest entry on this board.
      Hell…if they had fired L’il Spo last year, they might have already wrapped up the Eastern Conf Championship.
      It is SOOOO painfully obvious he is being just DOMINATED by Doc Rivers.
      All those bad-decision 3’s…not playing Bosh…never scoring a single bucket coming out of a time-out…not adjusting to that lame-a$$ zone the Celtics threw at them…letting KG simply OWN the paint.
      L’il Spo never did ANYTHING about ANY of those HUGE mistakes.
      Players play…and coaches lead. The Heat are going home and L’il Spo will be looking for a new job.

  12. 24thesho - Jun 6, 2012 at 1:34 PM

    Matt Moore, you write as if you’re in the third grade. Yo! Consider going back to school to take Journalism, Creative Writing and Sentence Structure classes. “They needed a presence inside, Spo turned to reliable, safe Haslem, who the Celtics funneled the ball to and watched him drop it.” How will you write your next story, …”and den, and, and den!”? Let me give you an example: “They needed a stronger presence inside. Spo turned to reliable, safe Haslem, through whom the Celtics funneled the ball, then watch drop”. You actually get paid to watch and report on basketball and other sports, too? I do understand that “Spo” is used in the familiar to describe the Heat’s coach with regards to your story, but, the rest needs improvement.

  13. 24thesho - Jun 6, 2012 at 1:54 PM

    Nice to know that there are a few folks who have noticed the weak writing, with regards to this series. Having stated this, I don’t think it’s fair to place most the blame on “Spo”, as Matt Moore calls him. They have Lebron, Wade, Bosh and a few good shooters. Miami’s “Big Three are much younger than Boston’s “B-3″ and they are the people on the court and they should be able to coach themselves at certain times of the game at this point. If Bird, Magic, and Jordan were on the “Heat” with that same supporting cast and both sets of Big Threes on the court were roughly the same age, they wouldn’t need any coach or at best, minimal coaching.

    • jeighbeigh - Jun 6, 2012 at 2:19 PM

      “If Bird, Magic, and Jordan were on the “Heat” with that same supporting cast and both sets of Big Threes on the court were roughly the same age, they wouldn’t need any coach or at best, minimal coaching.”

      ….but Matt Moore is the one with the weak writing.

    • michflaguy - Jun 6, 2012 at 2:50 PM

      Yeah right…Bird, Magic and Jordan never had any good coaches.
      How freakin’ lame can you get???

    • avermaver - Jun 6, 2012 at 4:57 PM

      Wade and Lebron have no charisma to make their teammates play better. Lebron didn’t do a very good job picking elite players to mesh with his “talents”

      • mogogo1 - Jun 6, 2012 at 7:21 PM

        Wade is a valid gripe because instead of helping LeBron mature, Wade has regressed and is the biggest crybaby on the team. Bosh, on the other hand, has worked out spectacularly well. He doesn’t complain about being the third guy and his game meshes. Problem is, he’s been hurt this playoffs and even when healthy his presence doesn’t make up for the fact that guys 4-12 are the weakest such group in the entire league.

        If Wade and LeBron truly bought into the concept of team, the Heat would win a championship or two. But what is becoming more and more apparent is that they were never going to be a tremendous dynasty with just three players. It was a flawed idea from the start.

  14. michflaguy - Jun 6, 2012 at 2:09 PM

    LeBron has been the most dominant player in the ENTIRE playoffs…he has played better than ANY player on ANY team for the past 4 weeks.
    What’s he suppose to do now…coach too???
    “Spo” has got to go. People were saying it down here last year (Miami) because many of these flaws showed themselves in LAST YEAR’S playoffs.
    Not sure why Riley didn’t pull the trigger then…that’s on him if the Heat go home a couple days.

    • gmsingh - Jun 6, 2012 at 3:36 PM

      Weird, wasn’t LeBron a dominant player when he was on Cleveland, too? He went to South Beach so he would have a team around him and win more championships than anyone in the history of NBA Championships. What the hell happened to our “hero”?

      • avermaver - Jun 6, 2012 at 4:59 PM

        He joined up with a guy who was a one-man wrecking crew before he arrived and hasn’t learned how to share the floor with the great one

    • scalfor3 - Jun 6, 2012 at 6:38 PM

      avermaver: so wade is holding lebron back from his ring? did you watch the finals last year?

  15. gunsmoke527 - Jun 6, 2012 at 2:27 PM

    Bottom line. I just want to see the Thunder beat the Celtics! It’s not that I am a Celtic fan, but a Final like that would mean: JaBoWaHeat, just watch the Finals in your ‘man caves’!

  16. davidly - Jun 6, 2012 at 2:27 PM

    If it was so hard to write this, why is there drool running down my screen? Oh…

  17. sportfan305 - Jun 6, 2012 at 2:33 PM

    The games have been close, but the Heat has been inconsistent and missing too many free throws, and Garnett has been a beast.
    Spoelsta doesn’t bark like Rivers ( Rivers seems be either yelling to his team or yelling at the refs the ENTIRE GAME- DOES THAT GUT EVER SHUT UP! ) and doesn’t seem to motivate or game manage well. Hoping for a game 7 but not looking good.

  18. michflaguy - Jun 6, 2012 at 2:48 PM

    Here’s a good one for the “what if” file…

    The Heat lose game 6 and Spoelstra gets fired.
    The Celtics go on to win the East AND the championship.
    Garnett, Allen and Pierce all retire with their 2nd ring to go out on top.
    Doc Rivers walks away and goes to….the Heat!!!

    ….the scary thing is that now this scenario is not that far-fetched!

    • avermaver - Jun 6, 2012 at 5:01 PM

      Garnett isn’t going to retire this season. The Celtics can’t beat OKC

  19. chuckiejohnson - Jun 6, 2012 at 2:49 PM

    If I was the owner of the heat I would write out a blank check and send it Fedex to Phil Jackson.

  20. florida727 - Jun 6, 2012 at 3:45 PM

    I’m not a Heat fan at all, but I can empathize with Spoelstra’s position. Think about it… you’re suppose to dictate to a bunch of egomaniacal multi-millionaires what they’re supposed to do? Yeah. Right. Watch their timeout huddles. Half the time, the “superstars” aren’t even in the huddle or paying attention to what he’s saying (ironically, they hang on every word in Doc Rivers’ huddles; maybe that’s why they’re a TEAM). Problem is, you can fire the players. Their money is all guaranteed.

  21. hscdaw - Jun 6, 2012 at 4:02 PM

    This post is comical. It is typical media…blame the coach. The reason the Heat are trailing in this series lies with the players. You can criticize Spoelstra all you want, but the bottom line is the Celtics want it more. LeBron and Wade are constantly complaining to the refs while the Celtics are converting on the other end. Leadership starts and ends on the court. KG is a leader, the Heat are a team who believe they are entitled. If you want something, you have to grab it.

  22. lakerluver - Jun 6, 2012 at 4:23 PM

    Spo is gonna be the scapegoat but Miami has far more issues than coaching. Those clamoring for Reilly need to understand he ain’t bringing a 22 year old Magic Johnson with him. Yeah, I know he won a title with Shaq/Wade but unless the refs put Wade on the foul line 30 times again even Reilly can’t lead this team to a ring.

    • mogogo1 - Jun 6, 2012 at 7:30 PM

      Riley’s also made it very clear he doesn’t even want to coach any more. It’d be one thing if he still had the fire, but to expect him to step into this when that’s not even what he wants to do is just asking for a disaster. He’d need to win a championship (and would one even be enough?) or be branded as a total failure.

      And I’ve never been convinced that them winning a title would cure the personality conflicts. I actually think that would just make things worse. I think LeBron and Wade coexist right now primarily because they know they need to win a title to get the monkey off their backs. Remove the monkey and I think they’d be at each other’s throats Kobe-Shaq style. That is not an appealing place to coach.

  23. canehouse - Jun 6, 2012 at 4:53 PM

    Here is how I see it… as I have watched almost every HEAT game or at least parts of every HEAT game for pretty much the last 18 years. Spo is a tireless, dedicated, coach. Pat Riley wouldn’t have promoted him otherwise… but what Spo lacks is that “it” quality to manage emotions during a game, to inspire players to go beyond their norm. Doc Rivers has “it” and his players are clearly responding.

    • avermaver - Jun 6, 2012 at 5:03 PM

      tireless and dedicated sounds like a follower, they need a leader

  24. gridirongoon24 - Jun 6, 2012 at 5:10 PM

    im sure spoelstra told his team to not get back on defense after misses and some makes lol i mean come onnnn! He will definitely be the scapegoat if they lose but these players dont get blamed enough for their lack of intensity… “We never really thought we would be in this position.” – wade. Pathetic mindset. Pressure is gonna be on in gm 6 and the celtics are the most battle tested team in the league. Its gonna be bad

  25. fanz928 - Jun 6, 2012 at 5:50 PM

    Should have closed out with bosh in the final 6 min

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