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Shaun Powell

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With Miami two losses away from elimination, the heat is on head coach Erik Spoelstra.
Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images

Heat collapse would portend doom for Spoelstra


Posted May 18 2012 5:51PM

INDIANAPOLIS -- He didn't swallow a grapefruit in the fourth quarter last summer in the NBA Finals. He isn't the one who blew a layup near the buzzer and then suffered a meltdown in this playoff series. Nor did he stock the roster with meatballs, but of course, you know how this might end anyway for Erik Spoelstra should it all go terribly wrong.

If the Heat fail to rally against the Pacers, or survive the East, or even win the championship they so desperately need to validate themselves, is there any doubt he will be punished for the sins of others, sooner or later?

Obviously, that's how it goes in the NBA coaching world, the price to be paid for earning millions of dollars and holding down one of only 30 very coveted jobs. Shed no tears for Spoelstra, but do send him a slice of sympathy pie anyway, if only for this very reason:

He's in danger of being let down by the three heavyweights in the organization: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Pat Riley.

He was set up to succeed, or to fail miserably; such is feast-or-famine world created by a superteam built on the promise of "not one, not two, not three" titles or else. Life was so much simpler, if also less lucrative, as a lowly gofer and then assistant coach and then head coach before Miami became a team to be both hated and awed. He came to the job without big credentials, which endeared him to the public but also made him seem like a caretaker while the Big Three and the famous team president did the heavy lifting.

All of which will make Spoelstra easily expendable if the Heat aren't sipping champagne fairly soon. And feel free to define "soon" as you wish.

The tongue-lashing he took Thursday from Wade in Game 3 against the Pacers summed up the state of Spoelstra. He has authority, but really doesn't. He's the boss, but not really. He tells LeBron and Wade and Chris Bosh what to do, but if the spirit moves them, they can tell him where to go. As Wade just did.

"Guys say something, you don't like it, and you move on," said Spoelstra, hosing down the flame before it spreads, in terms of perception.

That it was Wade who lashed out has to be tough for the coach. Their relationship goes back several years. Wade, actually, was considered Spoelstra's biggest ally in the locker room, and maybe a single public outburst doesn't change that dynamic completely, but clearly a line has been drawn. And when Wade was given the opportunity to extend a public peace offering to Spoelstra right after the game and declined, well, make your own judgment.

Wade is going through a brutal stretch; counting that missed Game 2 layup, these are the worst five quarters of his career, easy. Five points, plenty of mental lapses and a lazy effort throughout Game 3 showed us a strange and different side of Wade.

Roughly a year ago, it was LeBron coming up empty in the fourth quarter against the Mavericks that first told us this coaching job wouldn't be as simple as it looked.

And now, without Bosh, done perhaps for the next few weeks with an abdominal strain, Spoelstra is pulling strings that are snapping on him left and right. What we're seeing is how Riley never gave Spoelstra much to work with beyond the superstars.

What coach, for example, can coax anything out of a washed-up Shane Battier, banged-up Mike Miller or a Udonis Haslem who doesn't snarl and spit anymore? These are the players Spoelstra is trying to squeeze 10 and 15 quality minutes from, and that's like trying to squeeze juice from a rock.

In a move that was either genius or desperate -- and we'll let you choose -- Spoelstra started Dexter Pittman at center in Game 3. Gee, thanks, Riles.

"We had to throw everything on the table," explained Spoelstra.

While loading up on stars, Riley neglected to balance them with the necessary role players who can do what they do best while hiding their flaws. Look no further than San Antonio to see how that's done correctly, to behold how Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are nicely joined by Kawhi Leonard, Daniel Green, Boris Diaw, DeJuan Blair and Gary Neal, players anyone could've gotten.

Riley hasn't had the same kind of luck. He signed Eddy Curry, who sits on the bench in a playoff series that begs for a big man against Roy Hibbert. Curry follows in the immortal footsteps of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Erick Dampier, Jamaal Magloire, Eddie House and Mike Bibby among others as a cheap but ineffective pickup by Riley the last few years. In an effort to surround the Big Three with help, Riley has spent 25 cents and gotten 10 cents in return.

And so this is what Spoelstra has to work with: three stars, only one completely healthy, and a (so far) overmatched supporting cast.

In about 14 months, he has gone from being the envy of coaches to someone that few coaches would like to trade places with. Unless they're unemployed.

Which, if the Heat doesn't win a title, is what Spoelstra could be in not four, not three, not two years. Try one.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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