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Three anecdotes from Oklahoma City

Some other bits from Sunday's Heat win over the Thunder.

Erik Spoelstra reads the web

Before every game, the visiting coach meets with the media outside the visitor’s locker room to go over the team’s injury report and discuss whatever is on the curious minds of the reporters.

But before Sunday’s Heat-Thunder game, the tables were turned; Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had something on his mind. Spoelstra was apparently running a little late to the media availability because, as he said, he wanted to finish reading a TrueHoop blog post written by Henry Abbott about Kobe Bryant's reputation as a clutch performer.

Within the article, there was a statistical chart ranking the NBA’s top shooters in game-winning clutch situations.

“It said Dwyane’s not in the top ten or something,” Spoelstra said to the reporters circle with a smile. “It also said Kobe’s not a clutch player. Do you want to line up against him?”

A reporter responded, “I thought you were a stat guy.”

“Yeah, well," Spoelstra said. "You know in ‘Moneyball’ where they say that your eyes can deceive you? Well, stats can deceive you, too.”

In Abbott’s defense, his article refuted the conventional wisdom that states Bryant is the best clutch player in the NBA. The chart Spoelstra referred to actually shows that Bryant was an above-average shooter in clutch situations and Abbott didn’t contend he was necessarily a bad clutch player.

But this was a cool moment. Spoelstra, who years ago helped engineer an advanced statistics database for Pat Riley, echoed a lot of the sentiment around the league: Kobe’s not fun to guard in crunch time. The article caught the attention of the NBA blogosphere and now, apparently, at least one NBA coaching staff, too.

What Erik Spoelstra means by "trust"

The word “trust” has become a pseudo-motto for the Heat recently. Over the past week or so, Spoelstra stressed the concept on several occasions in his post-game press conferences. Trust each other. Trust the system. Trust me. More often than not, it’s just a softer way of saying, “stop taking bad shots early in the shot clock.”

But it’s not an empty word only used to translate basketball concepts to the media.

In the middle of the second quarter, the Heat had a possession when LeBron James’ initial attack didn’t produce a high-percentage shot. But instead of forcing a bad attempt at the basket, James passed it out to Mario Chalmers in the left corner. The shot clock was ticking down from 10 seconds at this point and the crowd began to grow louder as the clock wound down. Mario showed poise, drove baseline, and the defense collapsed onto him under the rim. But as he went up for the layup, Chalmers called an audible mid-air and kicked it out to James Jones in the right corner for the three. The shot clock buzzer sounded as ball fell through net.

The Heat milked every last one of those 24 seconds with two extra passes after the first option didn’t lead to a bucket. This was a very successful possession in the eyes of Spoelstra, since the Heat exhibited patience and didn’t impulsively shoot the ball at the first opportunity. On the sidelines, he slammed his hands together, clapping loudly as his teammates trotted back on defense.

“Great trust! Great trust!” Spoelstra shouted in encouragement.

They’re listening.

Predicting Play Calls

There were two NBA scouts sitting next to me.

I was sitting in the second row behind the scorer’s table during Sunday’s game and we had the privilege of hearing the in-game dialogue between the coaches and players. The nearby scouts jotted down every play that the two coaches called out to their team and frantically made notes on their pad of lined paper. Time when the play started. Play call. Play action.

There’s one particular set in the Heat’s playbook that Spoelstra calls “double stack” where the ball handler waits at the top of the key for two big men to come out and set picks facing on another on the ball. It’s a double high pick-and-roll and the key is to cause the defenders of the big men to cheat and overplay the ball handler rubbing off the screen. If they do cheat, it signals the big man to “slip the pick” which just means that the big man dives to the rim as soon as his defender commits early to the ball handler. Then, a simple bounce pass into the lane is all it takes to set up an easy layup.

The Heat ran the play in the third quarter and the scouts were observing closely. Spoelstra pounded his fists together as he called the play and the Heat players assumed their positions. Dwyane Wade was the ball-handler while Chris Bosh and Zydrunas Ilgauskas were the bigs setting the double screen. And guess what? Bosh’s defender left him early to cheat on Wade, except Bosh didn’t recognize it in time to slip the pick. The ball went out of bounds, but luckily it was Heat ball. Spoelstra wasn’t pleased.

The scouts put their heads down and write down the details of the play. But then Spoelstra called out Chris’ name on the sideline, opening his eyes wide to convey his seriousness. When he got Bosh’s attention, Spoelstra pointed down at the floor.

“Oh, slip?” Bosh asked not so discretely.

Spoelstra nodded.

“Run it again!” Spoelstra said as he pounded his fists together.

It’s at this point when I’m feeling really smart. I know the play call and I noticed that Bosh will slip the pick this time around. So I leaned over to the scouts who were too busy scribbling notes down that they didn’t see the interaction on the floor.

“Watch this, guys. Double stack. Bosh will try to slip the pick this time,” I said to the scouts, as if I were cracking some sort of basketball code.

The Heat ran the play again. Wade dribbled toward Bosh’s side, Jeff Green jumped out, and Bosh slipped the pick. All was good except Wade telegraphed the bounce pass and the Thunder easily stole the ball and went down the other way.

The Thunder staff sniffed it out. Apparently, I was not the only one.

The scouts, however, thought I was a genius.

There's a bigger lesson here, though. It's not easy to whisper secrets across a basketball court in front of thousands of people.