Posted May 31 2011 11:51AM
MIAMI -- If you listen to Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra long enough, you forget that he's one of the luckiest coaches in NBA history.
Spoelstra speaks mostly of the challenges that his star-driven team faces every day. There are the conceptual challenges of fighting through early season struggles to silence the critics. There are the more tangible tasks of meshing the talents of two stars that constantly need the ball in their hands, and the quandary of getting his team playing on a string defensively.
The word "grind" is used often, along with a message that every one of the Heat's 70 wins has come via pain and sacrifice.
Sometimes you wonder how Spoelstra makes it all sound so difficult. With LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all on the same team and at least two of them on the floor at all times, how hard can basketball really be?
Talent is clearly a big reason the Heat are in The Finals. But Miami wouldn't be here without the guidance of a coach who knows the game inside and out, knows how to keep his players focused on the task at hand and hasn't cracked under the tremendous pressure of coaching one of the most high-profile teams in NBA history.
This job was supposed to be too much for the 40-year old Spoelstra. This much talent, the critics cried, needed a coach with a big name or with NBA playing experience. Pat Riley was either going to take back his seat on the bench or he was going to hire somebody with more experience and caché than a guy with just two seasons and 90 wins under his belt.
Search the web for "Heat hire Erik Spoelstra" and Google will ask you if you really meant to search for "Heat fire Erik Spoelstra." And that query will bring you results from both early in the season and late.
But Spoelstra is Riley's guy. The coach with five rings handpicked his successor three years ago and knew full well what he was doing, having already worked with Spoelstra for 13 seasons. He knew how hard Spoelstra worked as a video coordinator, as a scout, and as an assistant. And he knew that Spoelstra knew basketball.
When Riley called Spoelstra into his office in the summer of 2008 and offered him the head coaching job, he told Spoelstra not to worry about what others thought about him. The message was clear: "Just do your job."
And that message has never been more important than this season. When everyone had opinions about him, most of them unfavorable, Spoelstra kept his focus and just did his job.
The Heat obviously struggled at times, both on the court and off. They started the season 9-8, lost five games out of six in mid-January and lost five straight in early March. They grew frustrated with each other, bumped their coach on the way to the huddle and either cried or didn't cry in the locker room.
But Spoelstra stayed the course and kept his message consistent. For him, it has all been a "process" and the team's last-season success is a product of the "habits" they've built over the last eight months, through good times and bad.
Many people might see Spoelstra as a Riley clone, and his press conferences don't do much to dispel that notion. But Spoelstra is his own man with his own methods. Udonis Haslem, who has played three seasons for both coaches, says that only about 25 percent of Spoelstra coaching comes straight from Riley.
"Obviously, our defensive concepts haven't changed since Pat has been in this organization," Haslem said Monday. "Offensively, there might be some input coming from coach Riley, but Spo pretty much runs the ship how he wants to run it."
Riley is a numbers guy who was quick to tell his 2006 championship team that they were 51-18 when they outrebounded their opponent. But Spoelstra takes the numbers to another level, like using pie charts to explain to James and Wade that they need to find different ways to score. He uses the data to confirm his suspicions or ask new questions.
Critiqued by many, Spoelstra's offense ranked third in the league in efficiency in the regular season. The offense obviously relies on the Heat's top-line talent, but true isolations are few and far between. Instead, it's ball and player movement that gets James, Wade and Bosh the ball in the positions they're most effective. The offense has evolved and become more complex and tougher to stop over time.
Of course, it's the other side of the ball where the Heat are at their best. Defense is their "backbone," and while the concepts may be Riley's, the implementation, motivation and game-to-game planning is Spoelstra's.
The athleticism of their stars has a lot to do with the Heat's top-five defensive ranking this season. But they were also a top-five defense last year, with Quentin Richardson and Michael Beasley starting at the forward spots. Now that was a challenge.
And this season has been, too. Getting Bosh to play top-level defense was not easy. Getting James to feel comfortable with the ball in someone else's hands was not easy. Dealing with injuries to Haslem and Mike Miller and managing a very flawed supporting cast was not easy. Getting through this season without paying any attention to the outside evaluations of his job performance was not easy.
And in reaching The Finals, the member of the Heat who has silenced his critics most of all is Spoelstra. When few thought he was fit for the job, he earned his players' respect, got them to buy in, and has them playing their best basketball at the right time.
"He's our leader," Haslem said, "and we follow."
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