By JORDAN IKEDA
The Miami Heat lost game five of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on their home court and now face elimination as they head back to Boston for game six tonight.
If you watched the post game show or perused the media since Tuesday, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the failure of Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra. That if the Heat lose tonight or in game seven (if there is one), the blame falls squarely on Spoelstra’s shoulders and that he should be fired as a result.
Can we nitpick some of his decisions? Monday morning quarterbacking and hindsight are rarely ever wrong. Was it wise to sit Chris Bosh during the entire fourth quarter? I scratch my head at that move too, but having James Jones out there spaced the floor and Udonis Haslem was doing a great job setting picks.
Besides, when Boston roared back in the second, it was Bosh getting abused, not Haslem.
So, feel free to nitpick that decision (though if the Heat would have won, it would be a non-issue), but please don’t tell me that Spoelstra can’t coach or that he’s being out-coached by Doc Rivers.
There is no way that the Celtics are more well-prepared then the Heat. Spoelstra came up as a video coordinator and moved up so quickly specifically because he was not only talented, but over-prepared. He’s young enough to be a part of the new breed of stathead/videophiles popping up in the NBA and puts in the time and energy in the gym and the video room. All this and he’s been mentored by the best, groomed by Pat Riley.
The Celtics are a real team with players that function well together and move the ball. In contrast, the Heat appear to be more of a collection of players. Too often, their offense breaks down into isolation-heavy sets because their two best players are not disciplined enough to stay with the play.
But Boston didn’t win Tuesday’s game because they had better plays designed for them. They won because they made things happen and scored several decisive baskets on broken plays.
There was the amazing Rajon Rondo tap pass that came off of an equally impressive blocked shot from Dwyane Wade that turned into a 50/50 ball. Rondo got to it before Lebron James and directed a perfect dime to Mickael Pietrus who nailed a three.
A couple possessions later, Rondo missed a gimme layup, but didn’t quit on the play, got his own rebound and put the ball back in.
Then, with two minutes to go and Boston down one, Paul Pierce nearly turned it over on a sloppy pass that produced another 50/50 ball. The 36-year-old Ray Allen and the 36-year-old Kevin Garnett instantly hit the floor after it. The 31-year-old Haslem was right behind them. The 27-year-old James stood and watched a few feet away as Allen got the ball, passed to Pierce, who dished to Pietrus, who splashed the three.
And the biggest play of the night, Pierce’s dagger three over Lebron, was probably the worst possible set—an isolation play for Pierce against Miami’s best defensive player. Hero ball in all of its glory. Lebron could not have contested the shot any better. It went in, but it was about the most difficult shot possible.
I’m pretty sure that’s not the play Doc drew up.
And then, there are the plays that Spoelstra did draw up.
Coming back in the fourth quarter, down five, the Heat got Lebron the ball at the high post and brought Wade off of a James Jones screen in the corner. Wade curled around the screen and got the ball as he was diving towards the hoop—fully maximizing his ability to finish. Wade scored easily off a wicked euro-step that shook Rondo.
After Chalmers got hit with his technical foul with 2:54 to go in the game, an official timeout was called. With the score 82-80, the Heat came out and ran an obvious set play that got Lebron the basketball in the post. He faced up and opted to drive to the hoop. Drawing three defenders, James kicked the ball out to Battier, who reversed it to a wide open Mario Chalmers. Splash.
And as the game was in its final seconds, coming out of a Miami timeout down four, Spoelstra ran a great misdirection play that got James a “quick two” layup with nine seconds left.
Other than the fact that most of the Heat’s successful offensive sets in the fourth quarter came directly after timeouts, what makes these plays work is that Lebron is attacking. He is aggressive. He’s making these plays.
When the Miami offense slows down and becomes dead, the culprit is usually a disconnected Lebron who drifts and watches. During the last five minutes, Spoelstra ran four plays that looked to get James the ball in his optimal spots on the floor. Twice isolated at the right wing with the floor spread. Isolated in the post with three point shooters around him. Isolated at the elbow.
All four times, Lebron played hot potato and quickly got rid of the ball, including passing up a wide open three point look. I mean, there was nobody within 10 feet from him.
No doubt, the Celtics mixed up zone and man-to-man which disrupted the Heat’s offensive sets. But, they made plays down the stretch when they had to make plays—the Heat didn’t.
Spoelstra isn’t stupid enough to come right out and say it, but after the game he did allude to the fact that when the Heat stayed disciplined and ran their sets, they were successful. It was a subtle defense with a passive aggressive nature about it. But he’s not going to come out and fully call out his best player for not running the plays.
It’s not like the Celtics ran any set plays better, they just function as a team better. You can certainly blame this aspect on the coach—that the team is not playing like a team. But for my money, Wade and Lebron are not compatible teammates. Their skill sets are too similar.
For example, there are those people clamoring for the Heat to run pick-and-roll with James and Wade—a la Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. The thing is, it is painfully obvious that Lebron and Wade just can’t pick and roll together.
As a defender, you really have no hope of stopping either one of them, but the scouting report tells you to sag off and let them shoot the jumper. Both are very streaky when it comes to 15 feet and out. Without that jumper threat in the P&R, defenses (especially disciplined defenses) sag back and clog the lane.
When things get tight, Wade forces his way to the hoop (how he earned his MJ comparisons during the 2006 Finals). While he has found success when the whistles are chirping in his favor, these wild forays to the basket often result in turnovers or bad shots if he doesn’t get to the line.
When things get tight, Lebron James loses confidence. He got tight Tuesday. Just like against Boston two years ago and Dallas last year. While he made a couple of big shots early in the fourth, the difference between his play in the first half, and his play in the last five minutes was night and day.
That is not a coaching problem. That is a player problem. Spoelstra, by all intents and purposes, is a terrific coach. Remember, the Miami Heat have been one the top five defensive teams in the NBA the last two years—and were top 10 when they had only Wade a few years ago.
Rondo, Allen and Pierce shot a combined 11-43 (25 percent) on Tuesday night. THAT’S coaching. THAT’S scheming. That’s defense.
The Heat lost this game in the closing minutes because they failed to get back on transition defense. That’s all effort at this point. No scheme, no play, no coach in the world is capable of making “not getting back on defense” work towards a win.
In basketball, you can only teach so much offense, can only lead so far. The truly great players elevate themselves and do things you can’t teach, lead when no one else can. That’s why they are great. Magic’s baby hook over the Celtics. Jordan’s push off jumper to sink the Jazz. Tayshaun Prince’s block on Reggie Miller.
It’s not always pretty, like Pau and Kobe pulling down 33 rebounds against Boston in game seven, but it’s that mentality of doing whatever it takes. Making winning plays even when you’re shooting 6-24.
So, if the Heat lose this series tonight, Erik Spoelstra is going to shoulder the majority of the blame. It’s unfortunate, that people are quick to judge his ability, when his skill and knowledge are fully on display and are clearly not the reason why the Heat struggle late.
That said, if he does get fired, maybe he can come to the Clippers.
Jordan Ikeda is a former Rafu sports editor who writes from Torrance. He can be contacted at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.