Miami Heat Index: Erik Spoelstra
MIAMI-- For the past four seasons, so much was consistent about the Miami Heat.
Four seasons of championship expectations. Four seasons of coach Erik Spoelstra’s catch phrases repeated time and again. Four seasons of questioning Chris Bosh's role. Nearly four seasons of Dwyane Wade's health being examined. Four seasons of being everyone's favorite enemy. And, most notably, four seasons of LeBron James in his absolute prime.
So much of that changed between July 11, when James announced he was signing with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Friday, when the retooled Heat held media day on the eve of their first practice.
The expectations have fallen from championship or bust to essentially being projected as just another playoff team. Bosh has suddenly gone from an All-Star-caliber role player to quite possibly the top option in a revamped Heat offense.
Wade's health concerns are still there, as evidenced by the first question to him being, "How’s your knee?" But no longer is he viewed as a fragile piece of crystal that must be kept in prime condition until the postseason. Wade has returned to being an absolutely vital piece, one that won't be afforded nearly as many days off, if he can avoid it.
That much change could be jarring, especially for a core group of players and a franchise that have become quite used to winning at the highest level.
But Wade said the past 2½ months have been plenty of time to adjust to the idea of, once again, playing without James.
"I think everyone in the organization had enough time to get used to the idea that it's going to be a different team," Wade said. "We can't replace LeBron. We're a different team. Everyone's opportunities will be different. Everyone's responsibilities will be different."
The only problem for Wade is, he's not sure exactly how his responsibilities will change.
Other than the uncertainty of his troublesome knees, Wade also faces the question of just how close he can get to his form of four or five seasons ago.
Without knowing that, he can't honestly answer how his role will change this season.
"I'm not sure," Wade said. "Obviously, I'll have the ball in my hands a little bit more. I've always been a playmaker for this team, and I'll continue to be that. I've always been somebody who scored the ball at a high rate, and I will always try to do that.
"I'm not coming in thinking I have to do anything that LeBron did, or that I have to do anything that I did before the Big Three. I'm coming in with a new mind, with a new thought of, 'What’s going to be my role on this team?'"
Among Wade's offseason highlights was, of course, marrying Gabrielle Union, and among the lowlights was a 30-day paleo diet stint that left him moody but also noticeably leaner.
"It was bad," Wade said of the mood swings. "I had to tell my wife, 'Excuse me if I'm not the guy that you're used to.'
"There were some days where I just couldn't take it, but I stuck with it for 30 days, and from there it just becomes part of your lifestyle."
Wade wouldn't divulge his current weight, but he did indicate it was somewhere between 212, his weight as a rookie, and 225, his playing weight last season.
"My goal this year is to be available as much as possible," he said.
The other remaining member of the former Big Three has more detailed goals.
Bosh never expected to return to a primary scoring role. He assumed that James would stay in Miami for the long haul, leaving Bosh as an outside-shooting big who watched James and Wade dominate the post.
Now, armed with a healthy, new $118 million contract, Bosh is downright giddy about the opportunity to show off a refined, well-rounded game that will allow the Heat to remain among the best teams in the league.
"I've had to play a role the past four years, but moving forward, I can show the city and the organization what value I can bring, how much I can turn up the intensity, how much I can put more weight on my shoulders and really hold that load and bring more wins to Miami," Bosh said.
One aspect of the Heat that won't necessarily change is the players' feelings about James.
While you could easily find reasons for Wade, Bosh and a handful of others in the Heat organization to have animosity toward James because he left everyone in the dark while making his free-agent decision -- or simply for leaving a team that could've maintained a long, championship-level run -- no one displayed even the slightest bit of bitterness.
Spoelstra said it took him and the front-office staff about 10 minutes to shift moods from disappointed to invigorated.
Udonis Haslem said he was plenty satisfied with two titles in four seasons during James' time in Miami.
Even Danny Granger, who briefly reopened his free agency after hearing of James' return to Cleveland, said he decided Miami was still the best fit for him, even without the four-time MVP.
Among players, Wade probably has the most reason to be upset with James, given that the timing of it all cost Wade millions, and he was considered James' best friend on the team.
Wade said he understands there are reasons for him to be angry if he chose to be. He simply chooses not to.
"I don't want to focus on none of that," he said. "I want to focus on moving on. That’s my friend, at the end of the day. The rest of it, I'm just focused on moving on and doing what I can. I can't focus on disliking somebody and all that. That's putting too much energy on the wrong thing."
Besides, given how much the Heat have to adjust now that James is gone, there's probably not enough time to even hold a grudge.
"I was disappointed," Bosh said. "There was a letdown initially for not being able to keep that going, but you have to get over it. You can't stay in the past.
"It's a huge opportunity, not only for this team, but for every individual that's here."
PORTLAND, Ore. — It wasn't the play Erik Spoelstra had in mind for Chris Bosh with the Miami Heat trailing the Portland Trail Blazers 107-105 and 7.7 seconds remaining.
"My call at the end of the game was more conservative," Spoelstra said. "I drew something up to get him on the move and he said, ‘No, I want it for the 3.' So he overruled it and became a prophet."
Spoelstra's original blueprint had Bosh receiving the ball from Dwyane Wade at the foul line extended, the midrange spot from which Bosh led the NBA last season in field goal percentage and has made a good living. A successful shot would've tied the score and likely sent the game to overtime. Then Bosh did the math.
"I kind of figured that it was going to be a long 2, and I didn't want that," Bosh said. "I knew I would be open and have more space if I popped for 3. In that situation, I wanted to go for the win," Bosh said.
The way Bosh saw it, this was the game's decisive possession and his attempt would ultimately win or lose the game for Miami. That being the case, Bosh wanted a more rhythmic shot.
"My momentum was going to be taking me away and I was going to have to stop, set and there wasn't much time. I wanted to come kind of downhill a little, to step into it."
The play would begin with Wade on the attack. That's the Heat's preferred offensive mode when LeBron James is sidelined, as he was Saturday night after straining his right groin in an overtime loss at Sacramento on Friday. Guarding Wade was the Trail Blazers' rangy forward and best on-ball defender, Nicolas Batum.
"We had Dwyane on the move," Bosh said. "He was able to go right. I kind of set a little brush screen a little bit and popped back. He kept being aggressive. They put two on the ball."
This is the point where Wade had to make a decision. Had he continued on his path to the rim when he encountered both Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge (Bosh's man) in the paint, it wouldn't have been the first time he fought traffic to get a big bucket. Yet Wade knew the degree of difficulty would be high -- and he knew Bosh was open behind him.
"My mindset was to turn the corner and be aggressive," Wade said. "In my peripherals, I saw LaMarcus coming, or one of the bigs, so I knew I was going to have to make a tough shot. I saw Chris was open, so I just threw it back."
A 3-pointer with the game on the line and James resting isn't an unprecedented situation for Bosh. Last March in San Antonio, Bosh hit a go-ahead 25-footer from the top of the arc after hooking up on a pick-and-pop with Ray Allen. In a crazy triple-overtime win at Atlanta in January 2012, Bosh got the ball from Mario Chalmers on a pick-and-pop to tie the game in regulation.
On Saturday, Wade was the assist man, though he won't win any style points. The pass was treacherous, a knuckleball in the dirt that Bosh had to pick up on the short hop.
"He threw a crazy pass a little bit," Bosh said with a broad smile. "I'm not going to lie, but I was able to see it. Nobody was in the vicinity so I didn't have to rush."
Bosh's shot fell through the net and sucked the oxygen out of a stunned Moda Center with 0.5 left on the clock and the Heat leading 108-107.
"It was a cold-blooded 3," Wade said. "It was cold-blooded."
Incredibly, the Trail Blazers came within a whisker of winning the game when they orchestrated a beautiful inbounds play with that half-second. From the left sideline, Batum floated a perfect inbounds pass to Aldridge just in front of the rim. In one motion, Aldridge caught the ball two-handed and tossed it toward the basket, missing wide left as the horn sounded.
"It was exactly what we wanted," Blazers guard Damian Lillard said.
With time expired, the Heat erupted in celebration, one that was uncharacteristically boisterous for December, but given the context entirely understandable. Miami threw a game away in Sacramento on Friday. The Heat beat a team with the best record in the league Saturday on its home floor, all without James, who was on the bench in earth tones -- camouflage tee, tan jacket, brown leather pants.
And then there's Bosh, who finished with a game-high 37 points and 10 rebounds. Not only did Bosh hit a game winner, but he called his own shot from beyond the arc -- even as he was about to share the floor in a two-point game with the league's all-time leading 3-point shooter in Allen and the best slasher of his generation in Wade.
"He already hit two 3s," Spoelstra said. "He was feeling it. He wanted it, and as soon as he said it, I said, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.' It was much better than what I had planned."
It’s not exactly unheard of. But Spoelstra's plotting is often more extreme than the garden-variety chess match. He has changed his starting lineup, for example, twice in the middle of the NBA Finals.
He’ll hold back certain lineup combinations, plays sets, and this season he's even kept a certain 7-foot, former No. 1 overall pick under wraps until he feels the time is right.
That is one of the luxuries of having a team expected to make a deep playoff run, and when perhaps only one serious contender stands between you and a fourth straight Finals appearance.
That makes it hard to predict exactly what will be seen Wednesday night, when the Heat and the Indiana Pacers face off for the second time in eight days (ESPN, 7 p.m.). After last week’s Heat game plan in Indianapolis led to a 90-84 defeat, it would seem that Spoesltra would want to take this chance to test out a few more strategies.
But that may be tough, considering that the personnel for this matchup is somewhat of a mystery. LeBron James suffered a mild ankle sprain Monday night and, though he would usually play through it for a big game like this, he purposely didn't commit to anything after missing Tuesday’s practice. His history of ankle sprains is varied -- sometimes he’s been able to play through them and sometimes he’s needed to sit for a game or two.
Meanwhile, the Pacers are openly waiting for Greg Oden to be used against them, but the Heat have given no indication that Wednesday will be that moment. And Michael Beasley (hamstring) has not practiced or played in 10 days.
“The key for us against this team is to get to our identity,” Spoelstra said, leaning on one of his favorite phrases. “We have to play our game.”
That means playing fast and small and to force defenses to cover more ground than they prefer at a quicker pace than they prefer. The Pacers have an unwavering method as well, which is to slow the game down and to play with big lineups that favor an interior game and not to bend to the opposing teams’ style by changing their lineup.
Chris Bosh said there are holes to exploit in the Pacers' strategy, but the Heat certainly failed to do that in their first meeting of the regular season. What it did show, however, was Miami's willingness to use some creative wrinkles that didn't much resemble how the Heat operated against Indiana in last season's playoffs, an indication that Spoelstra might indeed be in the mood to do some experimenting with these matchups.
In that game, Spoelstra decided to deploy James to defend Paul George from the outset instead of saving that move until the fourth quarter, as was his standard. James held George scoreless early and the Heat built a lead, but James became gassed and didn't seem to have the energy for the duties later. George ended up having a big second half, scoring 15 of his 17 points while working mostly against Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen.
Spoelstra also tried using what Pacers center Roy Hibbert called a "big-big" lineup, playing Chris Andersen and Chris Bosh together in the second half instead of using smaller shooters like Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem around Bosh. That enabled Hibbert to roam less and stay in the middle, which plays right into the Pacers' wheelhouse. The Heat managed just 37 points in the second half.
The expectation is that the Heat would take a different approach this time around. They can preserve James' energy for later, especially if he’s less than 100 percent. They can commit to give Battier -- who has been in a shooting slump and hasn't even attempted a 3-pointer in the past two games -- longer minutes. Perhaps they can even go to Haslem, who hasn't played much since suffering a back injury last month but was a key contributor against the Pacers last postseason.
Either way, tiebreaker scenarios leading into the playoffs are in play here. If the Pacers score a victory Wednesday they will take a commanding two-game lead in the race for the No. 1 seed with only two regular-season matchups left (March 26, April 11). The repercussions of that may seem far away but this will be crucial eventually, especially with these two teams so far ahead of the pack in the Eastern Conference.
Spoelstra, though, may have to weigh just how much he will want to dip into the bag for it. Especially when it comes to deciding whether to risk playing James or to make lineup changes that could have more value down the line.
“As the season goes on, we’re always going to be looking at what they’re doing; they’re going to be looking at what we’re doing,” Bosh said. “These games are important because who knows what it’s going to come down to. So we want to come out and win this game. It’s going to be an interesting thing.”
LeBron James won't see many familiar faces when the Dallas Mavericks visit AmericanAirlines Arena to face the Miami Heat on Friday. Only Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion remain from the Mavericks' team that defeated the Heat in six games to win the 2011 NBA Finals. But James insists the Heat also hardly resemble the team -- stylistically as well as in makeup -- that squandered a 2-1 series lead more than two years ago.
“We are a totally different team than we were in 2011,” James said of the Heat, who have struggled at times defensively this season but will carry the league's No. 1-ranked offense into Friday's game. “Our makeup has changed with how we share the ball, how we play together and how we are defensively.”
To James, the Heat have been a different team since that Finals loss to Dallas. The psychological and schematic makeover began to take shape after the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season opened with the Heat's convincing win against the Mavericks on Christmas Day in Dallas.
Shane Battier was signed at the start of that season to help space the floor with shooters, the Heat converted to a more up-tempo style, James expanded his game and Miami never looked back.
“We had a lot riding on that game and that season,” James said of a tone-setting victory. “We came in with a lot of motivation after losing the [previous] Finals. And from that point on, we kept it going throughout the whole year.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has repeatedly said he cringes when he's in the office and comes across old game footage of the team's cluttered style of play in the 2010-11 season. Bosh said it just took trial and error for Miami to work through some of those initial kinks.
“The chemistry is awesome [now] and we know what we're doing out there,” Bosh said Thursday of the Heat, who are averaging 28.1 assists through eight games. “The ball just moves. It's to the point now where we don't have to call plays. We don't have to run plays. We just go out there and play, and we're in the right spots at the right time.”
Wade agreed that the Heat have come a long way since that rough first season together -- one that still ended with the Heat overcoming shortcomings to still play for a championship. Facing Dallas serves as a reminder of where the Heat were back then, and how they've progressed.
"Obviously, we had the talent,” Wade said. “We just had the uncertainty of when to be aggressive individually. We've grown offensively. This team, it's different from any other team in the league. Some nights, your number is going to be called more than others. Some weeks, your number is going to be called more than others. And you've got to be OK with that and not be selfish."
Developing into a consistent play-making point guard isn't easy on a team that has James and Wade controlling the ball so much, but Mario Chalmers is off to the best start of his six-year career.
Through eight games, the much-maligned Chalmers is averaging 10.4 points, 5.3 assists, 2.3 steals and just 1.9 turnover per game. His assist-to-turnover ratio is one of the most best in the league.
“I'm just trying to be a leader on the court the best way I can,” Chalmers said. “With these guys, they're going to handle the ball so much. My job is to make it easier and get them easy layups and open looks.”
Chalmlers' scoring, assists, steals, rebounds and 55.7 percent shooting on 3-pointers are career-high numbers. After years of up-and-down play, Chalmers is confident he'll remain consistent this season.
“They say with age comes wisdom,” Chalmers said. “But it's just been me getting more comfortable. Being around these guys for so long, it's bound to happen.”
Ray Allen remained away from the team Thursday as he continues to recover from the flu-like symptoms he's been dealing with since Sunday. Spoelstra said Allen “is starting to turn the corner” with how he feels but would be evaluated Friday before his status is determined for the game against Dallas.
Udonis Haslem returned to practice Thursday after missing the past two games with back spasms. Although his status has yet to be determined, Haslem said he hopes to get back on the court.
“I'm just going to be smart and continue to listen to the training staff,” Haslem said Thursday. “I got a good workout in [and] I'm going to get another one in tomorrow, then we'll see how it feels after that.”
Did you know?
The Heat will finally get around to wearing those jerseys with player nicknames on the back for three remaining games against Brooklyn (Jan. 10, March 12 and April 8) and one against Boston (Jan. 21).
Quote of the day:
“They all want to see me do better than I have in the past. It's kind of like LeBron said the other day, 'I'm keeping my foot on your neck' to make sure I stay on the straight and narrow and do what I need to do.” -- Michael Beasley, on expectations teammates have for him to stay focused on and off the court.
MIAMI -- Ever since LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade joined up in the summer of 2010, coach Erik Spoelstra has often communicated with them like an investment adviser. Spoelstra’s recommendation? Diversify your portfolio if you want to maximize long-term growth.
That recommendation became more of a necessity for Wade this offseason. After battling bone bruises in the playoffs that sapped almost all of his explosiveness, Wade found himself in uncharted territory as a basketball player. He was often ignored. The Spurs dared him to shoot from the perimeter, dared him to be a weapon off the ball. And often times, Wade struggled to adjust.
Now, Spoelstra is publicly embracing the challenging burden as the Heat try to become only the fourth team in league history to win three consecutive championships.
So why the tweak in approach?
Perhaps a lucrative contract extension, an even deeper confidence in a LeBron James-led roster that returns almost completely intact and a collective determination to chase history yet again all have something to do with it.
“They understand what we're playing for,” Spoelstra said as the Heat enter Sunday's scrimmage at AmericanAirlines Arena. “There's a level of excitement leading up to the season. We understand this season does mean something. It's not insignificant and it's not dreadful. If you don't have passionate guys that love the game, that love to play for something significant, then yeah, the mental fatigue and all the excuses you can come up with can be an issue.”
The Heat play their preseason opener Monday night at home against Atlanta. But Spoelstra, entering his sixth season and now the longest-tenured coach in the Eastern Conference, is already in mid-season motivational mode.
It seems nearly impossible to top a historic season that saw the Heat win a franchise-record 66 games, establish the second-longest winning streak in NBA history at 27 straight victories and then notch Game 7 wins in both the conference and NBA Finals. Don't tell that to Spoelstra.
From LeBron's next frontier to closing in on the league's latest dynasty, here's Spoelstra's take on 10 key topics as the Heat gear up for what could be another magical ride.
1. On his multi-year contract extension and future …
“I know how tough it is to win in this league. There are so many things that go on behind the scenes. You want to work with people you trust. You want to work with people who have your back, not [only] after you win, but also after times like a 9-8 [start] two years ago. You want to have people you can trust, that are in the trenches with you. We've been through virtually everything you can go through together. I want to grow. I want to continue to improve and they've been great at facilitating that.”
2. LeBron's next mission …
“LeBron is self-motivated. He's a special dude in that he's always going to stay in a state of uncomfortableness. He wants to add different elements. And this year, it would be great to see him be acknowledged for the defensive work. There's no one else in the league that can do what he does. He's been banging on that door, getting close. I don't want it to be a campaign. It has to be earned. But he has that type of potential to be defensive player of the year.”
3. The approach with Greg Oden …
“The expectation is to come in here and have an opportunity to work, to get healthy. But more than anything, we just want to see him get back out there and have a smile on his face and do what he loves. He's had some setbacks, but that does not define his whole career. I'm going into it with an open mind, no expectations. There's certainly no timetable. He's in here five hours a day. He's doing more and more. The biggest test with us is, can we add to the workload and see how he feels the next day, without the timetable of having to perform? If it happens two months from now, three, who knows. We're going into it with an open mind. We'll see what happens.”
4. Facing a more stacked Eastern Conference …
“The nature of our game is evolving and changing every single year. It'll continue to have to evolve. And if it doesn't, we'll become extinct. That's important because our competition has gotten better, they're gearing up, loading up to beat us. You have to embrace that. We've always wanted to be one of these teams where you play and win when other teams try to load up and beat you. And they want what we've been able to accomplish. So you have to be able to continue to evolve and not stay stagnant.”
5. What to expect from Dwyane Wade …
“Motivation-wise, he understands what this team has been put together for, probably more than any other player on the team, because he helped us put this thing together as the face of our franchise. Health-wise, he's had a great summer. He was able to rest. It was such a big storyline during the playoffs. What disappointed me was that people lost perspective of what he was actually doing. He had a very healthy year all the way up to the Boston game of the 27-game win streak. He played through it with the doctors' and our trainers' support, knowing that it couldn't get worse but that it wouldn't get better either. He did take a lot of criticism, but he's a warrior for playing through that. I think he's ready to go and I think he's very motivated for the opportunity for what we have to play for.”
6. On Michael Beasley's return …
“It's a totally different role than he had the last time. He's at a different point in his career and his life. We're excited about just bringing him back in our organization and everything that comes with it. The culture, the discipline, the structure. We'll go into it with an open canvas.”
7. Overall level of comfort with this team …
“Give it time. Something will happen. Not once. Not twice. It'll happen several times. You have to go through [adversity]. At least we've been through the experiences before. It's going to be tough. The competition has gotten better. There are a lot of narratives out there. We can pick any one of them and make them an excuse of why we can't compete for it this year. But more than anything, our guys sense it's not a matter of, 'Can we?' For us, it's how.
8. Critics questioning a fourth straight Finals trip …
“Who comes up with that? Mostly teams that haven't been. I'm sure our competition is probably trying to drive that narrative out there, trying to get into our subconsciousness. We can convince ourselves of anything. What we have is a tremendous opportunity. And we have a very highly motivated group of guys in that locker room and they understand what we're playing for. And that's what it is.”
9. Whether a third straight title constitutes a dynasty …
“That's rhetoric, probably, for you guys [media] to talk about. It's not something I talk about with the team. It's neither here nor there or right or wrong. I just choose not to. It's October. Get ourselves ready for Game 1 and take it from there. And if you start talking that we'll handle it in the playoffs, then you're preparing yourself to get beat.”
10. Might this be the last run for James, Wade and Bosh …
“What we talk about all the time is just focus on now. Focus on now and not become obsessed with the future, because it's unknown. That's the way we've treated it. We'll focus on this, understanding that the future will happen. It'll be a great storyline for a little bit. But it'll probably be a bigger storyline out there than in our locker room. We've dealt with quite a few storylines over the years.”
The Miami Heat superbly recruited the NBA's biggest star.
Now, it's all about retaining him.
Facing another decision on his future in a matter of months, the Heat continued a slew of moves Sunday to signal to James that he doesn't need to go anywhere but the shores of South Beach for his career to keep blossoming.
On the surface, Sunday's transaction was all about coach Erik Spoelstra, who agreed to a multiyear contract extension that came with a significant raise and likely a bigger voice in front-office and team personnel matters.
Having guided the Heat to the playoffs in all five of his seasons as coach, including three straight trips to the Finals and the past two titles since James arrived in 2010, Spoelstra certainly deserves every dime and added dose of front-office influence he'll get as part of his new deal.
The purpose here is that Spoelstra, the longest-tenured coach in the Eastern Conference, will never hit free agency at the end of this season. And better yet, by consummating the deal two days before the Heat head to the Bahamas to open training camp, Spoelstra now won't even have to answer questions during Monday's team media day about entering what set up as the last season on his contract.
In other words, good for Spoelstra. He's proved to be one of the brightest, most demanding, more innovative and accountable coaches in the league -- with or without James.
Spoelstra's deal came a day after the Heat announced front-office promotions of longtime staffers Andy Elisburg to general manager and Keith Askins to scouting director along with more prominent and visible roles for former players Tim Hardaway and Juwan Howard.
All of this movement sends two very strong messages to James as he enters the fourth year of a six-year contract with opt-out clauses after each of the next two seasons.
On one hand, James can now look to tremendous stability at the coaching and executive levels. His future, should he choose to stay long-term, will be tied to the same group of people who confidently assembled in that downtown Cleveland office building three years ago and lured him to the riches, rings and long-standing relationships in Miami.
And on the slightly more important other hand, James still sees the flexibility of the Heat's roster after this season -- which stands to offer the same blank slate and extensive salary-cap space, with teammates Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade also holding opt-out clauses in their contracts.
One way or the other, the Heat face a roster reload after this season. Either James, Wade and Bosh agree to stick around and the supporting cast is rebuilt around them. Or, James walks away from everything he said he wanted three years ago and relocates his talents to another NBA locale.
I totally believe James when he says he has absolutely no idea what he'll do after this season. I also believe Bosh, who suggested to reporters last week that this could be the Heat Big Three's final run together if the season finishes short of them winning their third straight championship.
There's enough uncertainty as it is around this team entering the season. That alone made it a wise move for Riley, as team president, and owner Micky Arison to shore up the power structure in the Heat's executive office suite.
Regardless of how he handles the media this season, James is certain to face plenty of questions in every NBA city about his potentially looming free agency.
The Heat, however, have positioned themselves from the top down to provide answers regarding their position.
Arison reduced his role last spring overseeing his Carnival Cruise Lines empire to, in part, focus more on the Heat.
Riley vowed that he wants to stick around to see James and the Heat become the next dynasty of a decade.
And Spoelstra won't have to leave to eventually develop into the coach-executive role his mentor Riley mastered.
This time around, Riley has more rings and even more clearly defined roles to bring to the table for James.
Now a newlywed, James won't need another lecture on loyalty as the Heat set out on the LeBron retention tour.
Sure, Sunday was essentially Spoelstra appreciation day.
But every Heat move -- on and off the court these next nine months -- is designed to go LeBron's way.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
The San Antonio Spurs took Game 1 of the NBA Finals thanks to Tony Parker's late heroics.
Tony Parker made a shot at the end of the shot clock to put the San Antonio Spurs up 92-88 with 5.2 seconds remaining to help ice the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
Here's how it happened ...
... in their own words.
Erik Spoelstra: That seemed like a 26-second possession.
LeBron James: You're going to make me go back to that play?
Manu Ginobili: He had LeBron on him.
Tony Parker: I knew he was coming. Obviously a lot of NBA teams, they put bigger guys on me.
Tim Duncan: I think at this point my mind was just blank. I just wanted him to get a shot up in the air.
Parker: If LeBron is on me, I just have to try to keep playing the same way, pick-and-rolls.
Ginobili: I think we waited too long for him to play that pick-and-roll, and they are so good guarding that and helping and rotating and long arms on the ball.
Duncan: I was trying to get position on the board, trying to work Bosh up the lane a little bit, so I could get back to the board.
Spoelstra: We played it all the way through. That's probably what this series is about.
Parker: It felt forever. It didn't work out like I wanted it to.
James: He stumbled two or three times.
Spoelstra: There were a couple of loose balls where it might have been an opportunity to make it a jump ball, and then he just broke through.
Gregg Popovich: It looked like he lost it two or three times.
Ginobili: He lost it twice, so I was trying to just [chase] him around to get him an outlet.
Danny Green: That wasn’t drawn up, but he made it look like it was.
James: He fell over, and when he fell over, I was like, 'OK, I’m going to have to tie this ball up.'
Duncan: I see him go down and I'm just praying he gets a shot off. He does just about everything in the book that he had.
Parker: I thought I lost the ball three or four times.
Popovich: He stuck with it. He kept competing.
Spoelstra: It's going to go down to the last 10th of a second.
James: He got up and went under my arm. I got a great contest, and he even double-pumped it and barely got it off.
Spoelstra: You can't leave it to chance, even if it's right there at the end of the clock, a body in front. Hopefully you try to make him shoot over the top, but he made a tough play.
Parker: At the end, I was just trying to get a shot up. It felt good when it left my hand.
Popovich: He got it up there on the rim.
Ginobili When he turned to the other side and threw it up, I thought it was late. But going back in the timeout, they told me it was good.
Parker: I was happy it went in.
Duncan: It was just amazing.
Ginobili: And of course Tony's shot is one of those things that happens sometimes. We got lucky today. One of those things that could have been either way. It was just so close, but it was an unbelievable shot. That was the game winner.
Green: That last one wasn’t executed the way we wanted, but Tony made a big play.
Popovich: We were very fortunate. Great effort by Tony, and as I said, we were fortunate.
Spoelstra: He made a tough play, and you have to give him credit for that.
James: Tony did everything wrong and did everything right in the same possession. That was the longest 24 seconds that I’ve been a part of.
MIAMI -- As a four-time league MVP and the catalyst for the NBA's defending champions, LeBron James isn't accustomed to having his rhythm disrupted these days.
Good defenders rarely bother him.
Great schemes do little to knock him off his game.
But the only thing to stop James in his tracks recently has been a self-inflicted wound of sorts: His team's dominance so far this postseason. The Miami Heat are 8-1 through two rounds of their best-of-seven playoff series.
And that kind of success requires patience. Plenty of it.
For the second time during these playoffs, the Heat find themselves uncomfortably idle as they await the start of their next series after making quick work of an opponent.
After sweeping Milwaukee in the first round, Miami dispatched short-handed Chicago in five games to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the third straight season. But after enduring a seven-day break between facing the Bucks and the Bulls, the Heat now have a six-day hiatus before they play Game 1 of the conference finals Wednesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Miami could learn its next opponent as early as Saturday, when the Indiana Pacers look to close out the New York Knicks in Game 6 at home. With a win Saturday, the Knicks will force Game 7 at Madison Square Garden on Monday.
After saying he needed at least 24 hours to decompress after a mentally and physically taxing series against Chicago, James declared Friday his body was recharged and ready to play again. But he can only be a spectator.
“I'm not where I need to be as far as getting ready because I don't know who we play,” an already-restless James said Friday. “As far as physically, I could play a game tonight if we had one. I'm ready to go. But mentally, I'm not there yet because I can't hone in on who we're playing just yet.”
The only preference the Heat had in this ordeal was to have been playing on Monday instead of waiting another two days. But the Wednesday start was locked in by the league once the Knicks beat the Pacers in Game 5 on Thursday.
For now, the Heat's priority is to avoid a repeat of the rusty play they carried into their opening game against the Bulls following the previous layoff. Miami's players and coaches on Friday still credited Chicago for playing tough defense and riding momentum to a 93-86 upset in Game 1 of the series.
But there was also an acknowledgment in hindsight that rust and a lack of offensive rhythm also played a much larger role in the loss than the Heat initially let on before rolling off four consecutive wins to put away the Bulls.
Miami scored just 35 points in the first half and shot just 39 percent in that loss to Chicago, but responded two days later with a 37-point win in Game 2 that accounted for both the largest postseason victory in Heat history and the most lopsided loss the Bulls were ever handed in the postseason.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said his staff has examined every step the team took during the previous layoff between playoff games, from how frequently and long practices were held over the break, to what sets were run and how the team executed early in Game 1 against the Bulls. Spoelstra didn't say what exact changes might be made, but the Heat spent Friday's practice on shooting and timing drills.
“It's conditioning, shooting, rhythm, timing, sweating,” said Spoelstra, who gave the team the day off Saturday. “We're day-to-day right now in terms of our planning. You can't cheat the game, so you have to work at it. You're almost a week out from competing again, coming off a very intense series, your natural reaction is to not to want to come in here and get after it and sweat. But you can't shortcut it.”
There aren't any shortcuts to better health, either. Conventional wisdom would suggest that another extended dose of rest would be a good thing for Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who has struggled at times to play through a bruised right knee that's given him problems for two months.
But Wade, who bounced back with his second-best game of the playoffs to help close out the Bulls Wednesday, said he was resigned to the fact that his knee won't get much better regardless of the time off until after the season.
“I'm (still) dealing with this,” Wade said Friday. “I had 10 days off last time, so it really doesn't matter. At this point, we have a month (left) in the season. That's all I'm focusing on. I deal with stuff. I'm mentally strong enough to come out and still be effective, still be able to do what I do.”
Although Miami has shown a propensity to recover from early deficits to win playoff series the past two seasons, Wade doesn't want to keep playing from the same script. The Heat have trailed at some point in six playoff series since 2010 and have rallied to win five of them. The lone exception was the 2011 NBA Finals against Dallas.
In three of those six series, Miami dropped Game 1 and came back to win four straight, which was also the case in the Finals last season on the way to beating Oklahoma City.
“We'll continue to rise to the occasion, no matter who we're playing,” James said. “The stakes are higher now, being in the Eastern Conference finals. Our game will continue to rise, and we have a lot of room for improvement. We had a lot of mental breakdowns the last round we can improve. That's the best thing about our team. We don't really dwell on things we did well. We hate the things we did bad.”
The Heat have a bit more time to nitpick as they wait, and center Chris Bosh can think of a few adjustments.
“You just feel a little off,” Bosh said of initial challenges after a long layoff. “I wouldn't say rusty. You're rusty when you're coming back from the offseason. It's just a mental aspect of dealing with some shots that won't fall that usually go in. We were a step slow on defense, our awareness just wasn't where it was supposed to be. We want to hit the ground running and have a good rhythm this time. We're just going to have to continue to tinker with some things (the next few days) and just figure it out.”
No team has figured out how to get through playoff series faster than the Heat these days. But there's only one problem: They hate to wait.
This rapid postseason progress is really testing their patience.
MIAMI -- Understandably, Erik Spoelstra believes he's the last person who would feel comfortable analyzing just how strong of a case he's making for NBA coach of the year.
“I'm probably the wrong guy,” Spoelstra said. “That is clearly the last thing I think about. And I say that with no disrespect. If that helped anybody win a title ... I would find it more interesting. But I don't think it correlates.”
But the record speaks for itself.
And on Tuesday night, even in defeat, the effort his short-handed Miami Heat displayed for a second straight game without LeBron James and Dwyane Wade available spoke volumes about the job Spoelstra has done this season.
Coaching James and Wade -- a three-time MVP and a two-time champion, respectively -- will never be viewed as a burden. But when a coach has two of the top five players in the league on his roster, it tends to block the view of those who lack the vision to look beyond the obvious.
Spoelstra shouldn't need the last two games the Heat played to bolster his résumé among the best coaching performances this season. But they certainly won't hurt.
With James and Wade resting nagging injuries, the Heat went into San Antonio on Sunday and knocked off the best team in the Western Conference. On Tuesday, with James and Wade watching from the bench, the Heat pushed the current hottest team in the league to the brink and absorbed a 50-point effort from Carmelo Anthony before fading late and falling at home, 102-90, to the New York Knicks.
Between those two games, Spoelstra on Sunday was named the Eastern Conference's top coach for the second consecutive month. Over the past two months, Spoelstra coached the East All-Stars, guided the Heat on the second-longest winning streak in NBA history at 27 games, has Miami positioned with the best record in the league and has developed a system that is producing career-best numbers from James, Wade and Chris Bosh on offense this season.
Spoelstra will continue to be overshadowed by James and Wade, which means he'll find it difficult to get much credit outside of his own franchise for the job he's done to keep the defending champions functioning at a high level.
“There are some nights when he probably feels like he's still got something to prove,” said Heat co-captain and forward Udonis Haslem, who has been in Miami since 2003, when Spoelstra was an assistant on Pat Riley's staff. “With LeBron and D-Wade being out -- we all would rather have them playing, obviously -- but I guess it's been a chance for all of us to step up a little more. Him, too.”
Bosh admits he's a bit biased. But he believes there are two clear front-runners for coach of the year honors this season.
“I think the only candidates should be (Spoelstra) and George Karl,” Bosh said of the longtime Denver coach who recently led the Nuggets on a 15-game winning streak that coincided with Miami's 27 consecutive victories. “Both guys have done great jobs. I'm not one to hang my hat on awards, so it's kind of tough saying that, because for a while, if you got coach of the year, it didn't mean anything. They were still getting you out of there (fired). He's not worried about that. He's just coaching his team.”
It almost seems silly to think that it was just a couple of March Madnesses ago when Riley, the Heat's president of basketball operations, spoke to a reporter in New York while attending the Big East Tournament and defended his coach amid rumors that Spoelstra could be dismissed.
“Write it off,” Riley told the (Newark) Star-Ledger in March of 2011 as the Heat were on a five-game losing streak. “That ain't going to happen. We're in a rough time right now. We'll get through it.”
Since then, the Heat have gotten through plenty of trials and tribulations along with intense scrutiny and criticism from league peers and national analysts. They've reached the NBA Finals twice, avenging a 2011 loss to Dallas with a five-game series win against Oklahoma City last summer.
And this might just be their most dominant season yet. There's no debating whether James, Wade and Bosh are the big-engine parts that make this Heat machine run. But Spoelstra ensures those pieces calibrate.
“He continues to reinvent himself every year,” Haslem said. “After we went to the Finals (in 2011), he could have said, 'We got all the way to the Finals, but we just didn't get it done. Let's come back and do the same thing next year. I'll be the same guy I was.' But he reinvented himself. And with that, he made us reinvent ourselves as a team.”
Spoelstra spent the offseason after losing to Dallas in the Finals meeting with successful and influential coaches from just about every sport, including some who managed egos of high-profile players and others who perfected strategies.
Haslem explained the difference he saw in Spoelstra.
"And after winning it all last year, he could have went to the Bahamas and said, 'I've got the team, I've got the guys. Let's do it the same way and make it happen again.'" Haslem said. “Once again, we came into the season this year and he challenges us to get better. He challenges LeBron to get better. He challenged (Bosh) and D-Wade to get better, too, and with that, he steps his game up as well.”
Spoelstra was reluctant Tuesday to explain some of the ways he's grown personally as a coach. But he did say he constantly tweaks, evaluates and reevaluates. There's a never-satisfied aspect to his approach. There's always more and better ways James can be used. Players who have spent their entire careers playing one position now play three.
It ranges from Ray Allen playing point guard to Bosh at center. Initial resistance has given way to eager acceptance.
“I think our coaching staff in general, we stay uncomfortable,” Spoelstra said. “You're in a constant state of uncomfortableness. And we look at the way the league has changed. It's changed dramatically in the last six, seven, eight years. But our team, we look at the way we played two years ago to the way we are now, it's kind of tough looking at that old film. We ask our players to have a growth mindset, to continue to try to reinvent ourselves.”
Spoelstra has led the way by creating the environment. Haslem said the biggest factor in Spoelstra's evolution from his first season as coach in 2008 after taking over for Riley to now is his unique way of communicating his message.
“His office door is always open and he invites us in to speak,” Haslem said. “It's kind of funny, but he enjoys confrontation. Not in a bad way. But he understands it's sincere, it's passionate and that we all want to win. Sometimes in the family, brothers bump heads, but we all want the same result in the end. So he doesn't mind a little bit of disagreement, when emotions get raised a little bit. Nothing in a disrespectful way. Nothing challenging him as coach, but ways to get it on the right path and together.”
If anything, Haslem said Spoelstra doesn't get enough credit for bringing three marquee players together and having two sacrifice -- sometimes to the point that it hurts.
“We got the talent,” Haslem said. “The hard part is getting everybody to buy in every day, and we're doing that.”
The rough beginnings have smoothed out. And it's allowed Spoelstra to hit his stride as a coach this season.
“You have to listen to the guy that's calling the shots,” Bosh said. “I've always been an all-in guy, where if you feel we're a better team doing it this way, then I'll do it. I just don't want a failing system. Being able to communicate, that was something we were all tiptoeing around at first. We were just tiptoeing in the locker room instead of telling guys how we feel. Sometimes you just have to step to the plate and say this is what we're going to do. It's attempts and failures. It just takes some time.”
Time should change the perspective on Spoelstra. Two years ago, he didn't get a single vote for coach of the year and was thought to be on the proverbial hot seat.
Now, there might not be a hotter coach in the league.
“You can't get caught up in highs and lows and try to change peoples' (perspective),” Spoelstra said. “That's not my job. I've been hired to produce a result. And that fills up the majority of my free time.”
Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE/Getty ImagesLeBron James drained six 3-pointers over a five-and-a-half minute span in New Orleans.
NEW ORLEANS -- Two hours prior to the Miami Heat’s tipoff against the New Orleans Hornets, Pat Riley issued a scathing response to Danny Ainge, who on Thursday said it was “embarrassing” for LeBron James to take issue with NBA officiating.
James offered an answer of his own once the game was underway. In a span of five and a half minutes that straddled the first and second quarters, James splashed six 3-pointers, drained a couple of 2-point jumpers and converted a free throw. The overall tally for James over 10 possessions was 23 points, as the Heat built an insurmountable lead en route to a 108-89 win over the Hornets.
“When you’re having one of those nights, you just try to keep it going,” James said. “Guys like myself and [Dwyane Wade] -- we make a couple of 3s, then we kind of see if it’s the hot hand. If it’s one of those [games], I just keep it going.”
For his part, Wade treated James’ first-half exploits as if his teammate were pitching a perfect game. There was no chatter during timeout huddles nor any acknowledgment that James was living in the basketball stratosphere.
“I was glad I was on the bench, so I could watch the show,” Wade said. “When a guy’s hitting like that, you don’t want to say much to him. In a sense, you don’t know what to do. You don’t know if you should leave him alone, dap him up. I don’t know. I just stayed away from him.”
James ultimately finished with 36 points on 13-for-20 shooting from the field (7-for-10 from beyond the arc), to go along with six assists and four rebounds. His first-half outburst turned a sleepy New Orleans crowd solidly to his favor. After the fifth of his six 3-point shots, James encouraged the audience during a timeout to turn up the volume with a wave of his arm.
“I was just showing my appreciation,” James said. “It’s an unbelievable feeling to hear boos or hear whatever before the game or when your name is announced, and then you’re able to turn an opposing crowd almost like a home game.”
After he finished off his explosion in the second quarter, James took a breather before returning a few minutes before halftime. Once back on the court, James smoothly transitioned from cold-blooded scorer to crafty facilitator for the remainder of the game, setting up both Wade and Chris Bosh with lobs at the rim.
“It’s maturity that he didn’t feel the need to come in there and heat check again, but rather play the game the right way,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Even in the huddle after he went on that barrage -- that’s when we got into the penalty. He was reminding everybody, ‘Hey, we’re in the penalty. Keep attacking. Let’s get to the free-throw line.’”
James wasn’t exclusively a distributor, though. His last shot, fittingly enough, was a 3-pointer on the Heat’s final possession of the third quarter. With the Heat sitting on a 21-point lead heading into the final frame, James did not play in the fourth quarter.
For the first time in weeks, there was no talk of a winning streak, or the potential to make history. Even as they piled up wins in bundles, the Heat had establish an uneasy pattern of starting games slowly, something they were eager to correct, whether in the midst of a streak or not.
On Friday night, the Heat foundered in the opening minutes, racking five quick turnovers, before settling in. They built a permanent double-digit lead during the opening possession of the second quarter, when James dropped bomb No. 4 from long range, despite a close contest by the Hornets' Darius Miller. Any fear of a post-streak letdown quickly melted away.
“I thought we came out with the right mentality,” Wade said. “It was a very professional way to approach the game. After winning 27 straight, then losing one, it would’ve been easy to come out and lay an egg, but I thought we came out with great energy.”
The extent to which Riley’s pregame statement fueled James’ performance is speculative, a fun premise but probably more symbolic than anything else. James rarely needs an outside influence to deliver a virtuoso performance, though he did confess that the conversation since Wednesday surrounding his comments was a source of motivation.
“Absolutely,” James said. “I’m just going to continue to be who I am on the floor, who I am off the floor. At the end of the day I’m here to win games and to put our team in a position to win another championship.”
Riley’s pointed, profane words for rival exec Ainge were an unusual move for an organization that fashions itself as a button-up outfit inured to outside noise. But in a certain sense, Riley’s barb was an announcement to the rest of the NBA that the Heat are in a supremely confident place. They’ll render their own judgments, thank you.
MIAMI -- In the midst of an 18-game winning streak, much of the focus has been on the piles of statistics the Heat and their stars have tallied over the past six weeks. It has made it easy to overlook perhaps their greatest achievement: their willingness to be unselfish.
You read that correctly. The July dancing, pregame dunking, Harlem Shaking Heat might like to show off from time to time but they’re also playing a downright chivalrous brand of basketball.
Coach Erik Spoelstra, often overlooked because of the talent on his roster, created a bit of a daring game plan for this season that went against conventional wisdom and long-standing star-treatment traditions. He somehow has been able to sell it.
“He won’t win it -- because no one wants him to win it -- but Erik Spoelstra is the coach of the year, without a doubt,” a league executive said Sunday. “No one admits it, the way he’s gotten all these guys to check their egos and play this way is rare in this league.”
Let’s be real. LeBron James does not like defending bigger players. Dwyane Wade longs to shoot more. Chris Bosh dislikes playing center. Ray Allen gets frustrated he isn’t more a part of the offense. Shane Battier is getting bullied and beat up every night, forced to guard opponents he never thought he would. Mario Chalmers thinks he’s one of the best point guards in the league. Udonis Haslem thinks he should be getting playing time as though it’s still 2006.
Spoelstra doesn’t just get them all to play nice, he gets them all to play at a dominating level.
“Their interchangeability is ridiculous,” said a league scout who recently has been tracking the Heat. “Ray Allen is a classic [shooting guard]. Other than that, everybody they have they can move around and take different roles. Chris Andersen, who they just signed off the street, can play center in small lineups and power forward in big lineups. Even Wade, they have him guarding a 6-11 guy [Paul George] and then playing point guard on offense at times.”
James is on the hottest streak of his career and he took only 10 shots and scored a season-low 13 points Sunday in one of the biggest games of the regular season against the Indiana Pacers. Wade has never shot the ball better, but hasn’t shot less since he was a rookie. Bosh is an eight-time All-Star and if he gets his number called five times a game on offense he’s lucky. Battier is having the best 3-point shooting season of his career and didn’t even attempt one against the Pacers. Allen has gotten 10 shots in a game only five times during the Heat’s winning streak.
The ego management going on with the Heat team is simply remarkable.
It wasn’t a merry-go-round to get here. There were cracks earlier this season. It was especially evident one night in Salt Lake City in mid-January. Wade was benched for the whole fourth quarter and seething. Bosh also was benched for being eviscerated by the Jazz’s big men. James was so sore from banging with Al Jefferson and Derrick Favors that he very publicly took a postgame ice bath and tweeted out the photos of it.
The Heat were regularly getting pounded on the boards and regularly getting beat on the road, where their small-ball system sure looked like a flawed strategy. It looked like the demands of this style were wearing on the stars.
The Heat added Andersen in a midseason move and that helped, but otherwise Spoelstra has stayed the course. It’s paying off.
“When you put together a veteran team like this you have to have the right guys,” Spoelstra said. “If you don’t and guys are unhappy with the roles then your versatility and your depth doesn’t mean anything. For us to make other teams uncomfortable we have to be uncomfortable first. There’s always an easier way than to play to our identity.”
Only Spoelstra knows how often he has had to deliver that message behind the scenes when players have grown testy. Every coach at every level has players who think they should be getting more or doing more or playing more. In the Heat’s case, those players probably are right, most of them have the talent and experience to do more. But Spoelstra has been able to sell them on the collective and it has made for one fearsome juggernaut.
The streak, whenever it ends, has been one of the dominating stories of the season thus far. But the reality is the Heat have shown, as long as they remain healthy, the product of this ego-checking is going to be a terror for an opponent to beat in a seven-game series in the spring.
“We’ve got a great team. No individual will ever be able to win a game for us. We have to do it as a collective group,” James said. “We can play any game. We can play big, we can play small, we can play fast, we can play slow. Whatever presents itself, we’ve shown it. We just go execute the game plan Spo gives us.”
MIAMI -- With the All-Star break looming, the defending champion Miami Heat sit in unfamiliar territory at the season's midway point during the Big 3 era: atop the Eastern Conference.
“And we know we still haven't played our best basketball yet,” three-time league MVP LeBron James said. “There's been some ups and downs. We've had some struggles. But for the most part, we like the direction we're headed.”
With James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh set to anchor the Eastern Conference's All-Star team, guided by coach Erik Spoelstra next week in Houston, Miami is halfway to its goal of repeating as NBA champion. Let's chart the team's progress with our mid-term report card that grades each player on the roster.
Grades are weighted and determined by specific player performance based on expectations entering the season.
LeBron James: What else is there really to say? He came to Miami three seasons ago as the centerpiece of the so-called Big 3. But that no longer applies. He stands alone as a clear-cut sensation. He has gone Beyonce. He's still the best player on the planet, still the most unselfish superstar in the league and still getting better each month of the season. Already shooting a career-high 55.5 percent from the field this season, LeBron has upped that number to a ridiculous 60 percent over the past 11 games. Grade: A+
Dwyane Wade: He asked not to judge until around the All-Star break, based on his recovery schedule from offseason knee surgery. Don't expect the nightly dominance from Wade. But he can deliver it just about every other night. Turnovers have become a concern recently, but he's making far more explosive plays as he regains strength and confidence in his legs. Like James, Wade is also shooting a career high from the field and remains one of the most efficient guards in the league. Grade: B
Chris Bosh: So far, it has been a season of playing to the extremes for Bosh, who is capable of being the best post player in the East one night and a 6-foot-11 invisible man the next. Bosh went as far as to apologize to Heat fans after Sunday's game in Toronto for inconsistent play. His rebounding and scoring are at or near career lows, but so are his opportunities in Miami. That said, he's also shooting at a career-high clip and is again an All-Star. Grade: C+
Mario Chalmers: Despite recently fashioning himself as a top-10 point guard in the league, there are many nights when Chalmers isn't even the best at his position on the team. His overall shooting numbers aren't impressive, but his 72 steals are second-most on the team. Instead of solidifying his role as a clear-cut starter in this league, Chalmers' biggest task is fending off backup Norris Cole. But just when you count him out, he responds. Grade: C-
Udonis Haslem: Having re-emerged in the starting lineup to help address the Heat's recent rebounding woes, Haslem has yet to recapture the shooting touch and production on the boards that have defined his gritty career as a key member of two championship teams. Multiple injuries in recent seasons have quietly caught up with him and his production has been in steady decline. Haslem's leadership, accountability and intangibles remain valuable. Grade: C-
Ray Allen: How long ago does it seem when Allen made three game-winning shots in the first couple of weeks of the season? His consistent impact hasn't been the same the past few months. Allen leads the team with 72 three-pointers, and he ranks among the NBA's best at 42 percent from deep. But he's still searching for a comfort level that might not be found until the stretch run. Grade: C+
Shane Battier: First off, give Shane extra credit for that rare dunk in Monday's game. Intangibles are his thing. Battier is a consummate professional who plays with the same effort and attitude regardless of the role. That's invaluable this team. All but nine of his 72 made shots this season are from 3-point range. Ask him to step inside the arc, and he's in trouble. But he's also third on the team in blocked shots, which was a bit of a surprise. Grade: B
Norris Cole: Aside from LeBron, Cole returned from last season as the Heat's most improved player although his offensive numbers don't always reflect it. But there was a point earlier this season when Cole absolutely frustrated several of the league's top point guards with his ball-hawking defense. If he continues to make strides with his jumper, he'll earn more clutch-time trust. Grade: B-
Chris Andersen: For the second straight season, an out-of-work big man walked off the streets and directly into the Heat's primary rotation. Last season, it was Rony Turiaf. This season, it's the Birdman, whose energy and rebounding are having a much-needed impact. Imagine how effective Andersen, nearing the end of his second 10-day contract, might be once he's in actual game shape. Grade: B
Mike Miller: Eventually, Miller will get another shot in the rotation. He always does. But for now, he's the odd man out -- basically for no real reason at all. That's the luxury -- and curse -- of depth. At least he's healthy. Grade: C+
Rashard Lewis: Just consider Lewis this season's version of Juwan Howard, a veteran eager to be along for the ride and considers it a bonus when he gets the rare dose of meaningful minutes. It could be worse. At least Lewis isn't this season's version of Eddy Curry. Grade: C
Joel Anthony: Before he was planted on the bench, Anthony was praised as the answer for the Heat's defensive lapses. Andersen's arrival -- and ability to catch and finish at the rim -- led to Anthony's departure from the coach Erik Spoelstra's feast-or-famine rotation. Grade: C
James Jones: Tough to earn a grade when your best performance of the season came during Battier's "Battioke" fundraising event. But still, Jones was on fire that night with Cee Lo Green's "Forget You." Grade: A
Dexter Pittman: Considering all of D-League assignments, including his third this season, Pittman has to be closing in on Sioux Fall's career records for scoring, rebounds and minutes. That doesn't appear to bode well for the three-year Pittman experiment with a Heat team that has been desperate at times for any productive inside presence. Grade: D
Jarvis Varnado: Signed for the duration of the season after serving two 10-day contracts, the Heat appear to be developing the former second-round pick to be a cheaper and younger alternative to Anthony. Grade: Incomplete
Erik Spoelstra: His rotations may leave you puzzled at times and the in-game adjustments are sporadic. But credit Spoelstra for largely managing egos amid the challenge of a championship hangover, keeping Miami atop the East and earning his first All-Star coaching nod. With four consecutive playoff berths, including two straight to the Finals, Spoelstra has solidified himself and his staff as one of the NBA's hottest commodities. Grade: B+
Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images
A week ago, Pat Riley and the Heat may not have been in a singing kind of mood.
MIAMI -- Pat Riley is a man of many motivational methods. But who knew channeling his inner Cee Lo Green would help work such wonders to ease some of the tension within his team?
Yet there stood Riley, the Miami Heat's president, on a stage rapping alongside forward James Jones the other night during a fundraising karaoke event to uproarious laughter. That mood carried into Tuesday's practice as the Heat prepared for Wednesday's home game against the Toronto Raptors.
This time a week ago, the feeling around the Heat was quite different. Just seven days ago, Miami was in the midst of a disastrous road trip, coming off a mini-controversy after coach Erik Spoelstra's decision to bench Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh late in a loss to Utah and the team was coping with a tired and frustrated leader in LeBron James.
After rallying with two victories to salvage their six-game trip, then enjoying a five-day break in the schedule and poking fun at one another during forward Shane Battier's South Beach fundraising event, the Heat have regrouped nicely.
Now they look forward to returning to action after addressing some concerns on and off the court in recent days. That's the difference a week can make in the NBA, in which last week's drama is this week's joke material.
“Whenever you lose, it's the worst feeling, especially when you lose multiple winnable games,” Wade said Tuesday of emerging from a 3-3 road trip that started with three loses in the first four games. “It hurts. There's a lot of things in question, and all of these situations. But when you win, it cures all, in a sense. We're a close-knitted team. If we have any issues, a lot of it is not in the locker room with each other. Even though we didn't have the trip we wanted, we did get better and we did learn something as a team.”
The Heat return home to AmericanAirlines Arena on Wednesday night far more rested, with a bit more size available on the roster and, overall, in no worse shape in the standings than they were when they departed on their longest trip of the season nearly two weeks ago.
At 26-12, Miami holds a 1 1/2-game lead over the New York Knicks for the best record in the Eastern Conference. The Heat have taken steps to address their rebounding struggles by signing veteran center Chris Andersen to a 10-day contract earlier this week that makes him available for Wednesday's game against Toronto. But the team's most meaningful accomplishment in recent days has been the opportunity to give James and Wade significant rest.
The Heat went two days without practicing after returning from the west coast, and James was also allowed to stay home from Tuesday's practice in order to recover from a cold. James' absence came a day after Wade sat out of Monday's workout to nurse a minor toe injury.
“You don't get these type of breaks very often,” Spoelstra said Tuesday. “You want to try to accomplish what you can to get guys healthy, to teach, to reinforce some of our habits, but also to take advantage of a couple days, at least, to get after it and drill the physical aspects of our game.”
One physical aspect that has been a focus for the Heat is rebounding, where they rank at or near the bottom of the league in many statistical measures. But Miami showed signs of improvement in its past two victories on the trip, even before Andersen was brought in to add size and bulk.
The Heat were outrebounded by seven against the Lakers, but compensated for that deficit by forcing 20 turnovers in a 99-90 win last Thursday. A night earlier, Miami was outrebounded 52-51 but forced 21 turnovers in a 17-point victory against Golden State. It has marked the first time in just more than a month the Heat's defense have forced at least 20 turnovers in consecutive games.
With the defensive turnaround already underway, Spoelstra stressed Tuesday that Andersen wasn't signed to be any sort of savior after being inactive for the past nine months since he was released by the Denver Nuggets last season. Instead, Andersen wants to eventually contribute energy and a few extra blocked shots and rebounds when he gets up to speed.
“I just want to come in here and do what I do,” Andersen said. “What I've noticed here is a big trust. Everybody trusts each other on the floor and off the floor. I'm trying to build that trust with these guys. I'm trying to earn it. Just by coming up here and working my tail off, hopefully I'll gain that trust in the next week or so.”
While Andersen represents one front-court project for the Heat, Bosh remains another who is a work in progress. After decompression from a turbulent trip, Bosh would like to see his game level off at somewhere near his performance nearly two weeks ago in Portland. James and Wade fed the ball into Bosh early, he attacked the rim often and finished 13-of-18 from the field for 29 points along with four rebounds and four blocked shots in a 92-90 loss.
Bosh said Tuesday that he made it a point during the game against the Blazers to assert himself and demand opportunities. That aggression wasn't there in other games. Bosh said he's still adjusting to knowing when to get himself going by demanding the ball inside, and when to defer and maintain spacing for James and Wade to operate.
“In my position, it's going to be more sporadic -- and I understand that,” Bosh said of feature opportunities in the offense. “That's on me a lot [to be aggressive]. I've got to really make and effort to just run down in there. I just have to enjoy myself out there. A lot of the time, I don't want to get in the way. And I can't have that mentality. I have to get in the way sometimes and establish myself.”
If the stars align and the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat both manage to get to the Finals this season, the league will not only get the dream Kobe Bryant-versus-LeBron James matchup, but the intriguing coaching duel of the newly appointed Mike D’Antoni against Erik Spoelstra.
While D’Antoni might double Spoelstra in terms of longevity on the sidelines (he’s in his 11th season as a head coach, compared to Spoelstra, who is in his fifth), Miami’s coach has never had a losing season (D’Antoni has five times) and has two Finals appearances and a ring to his credit while D’Antoni has never made it past the conference finals.
The Heat (7-3) look primed for a third straight trip to the Finals, while the Lakers (3-5) have already had many head coaches this season as they've had wins.
Let’s look at the seven improvements (or less) the Lakers have to make under D’Antoni to make a Finals run seem realistic:
1. Get something out of the bench.
In order for Miami to win the championship, it didn’t just rely on James playing at an elite level with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh flanking him with additional support. The Heat don’t win it if Norris Cole doesn’t come off the bench to score eight points in eight minutes in a six-point win in Game 4 of the Finals or if Mike Miller doesn’t score 23 points in 23 minutes as a substitute in the series-clinching Game 5.
D’Antoni will be tasked to get the Lakers’ second unit primed to make the same type of contributions. In order to do so, D’Antoni’s first order of business at his introductory press conference was to stoke the egos of his reserves to build their confidence. He said he has been hoping he could coach Steve Blake for the last 10 years: “I think he's perfect for our system.”
He said Jodie Meeks has the green light: “The only time he needs to shoot is when he touches the ball.” He showed the team highlights of Chris Duhon running his offense in New York and said: “He looked good on it, and he will look good.”
Now if he can keep Jordan Hill, Antawn Jamison and Darius Morris also ready to play, the Lakers might have something and with a starting five as talented as the one they’ve assembled, “something” is all they’ll need from the bench.
2. Empower Pau.
This was supposed to be a bounce-back year for Pau Gasol after he struggled last season as he twisted in the trade winds. His inspiring Olympics performance, coupled with a point guard like Steve Nash looking to optimize his tremendous skill set, made it seem like he would find his footing again.
Based on how Gasol has started 2012-13, it turns out his 2011-12 wasn’t as bad as we thought. Gasol’s numbers have decreased across the board (scoring down from 17.4 to 13.8 points per game, rebounds down from 10.4 to 9.9, shooting percentage down from 50.1 to 40.4 percent) through the first eight games of the season and D’Antoni needs to treat Gasol like a reclamation project.
"I just want him comfortable in what he does … You try to coach against him and you scheme against him and it’s not easy. I think Pau is going to be great. I can’t wait to work with him,” D’Antoni said. “I know players are criticized a lot (for) not being tough enough and I just don’t buy into it. He’s a tough guy in a sense that he’s a skilled guy, there’s a difference. I think sometimes you get outside of what you do. What he does is great and I’m going to get him to do what he does.”
3. Defend, defend, defend.
D’Antoni’s teams have never been as bad defensively as his reputation. When you play at an accelerated pace, there are going to be more possessions for you, but also more possessions for your opponent so the score is going to climb. Still, even if his teams haven’t been terrible at defense, they’ve only been middle of the road at best and that needs to change when you have a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Dwight Howard on your team.
“The biggest thing for us is getting stops on the defensive end,” Howard said Thursday. “That’s going to be key come playoff time. You get stops, you score. So the more stops you get the easier it will be for us to get down the floor.”
4. Spread the floor by making shots from distance.
D’Antoni’s “Showtime” plan for the Lakers sounds well and good until you question if they have the personnel to pull it off. Quite simply, there’s no evidence to support that this Lakers bunch can hit open shots. L.A. ranked last in the league in 3-point percentage for much of last year (32.6 percent overall) and they’re around the same accuracy so far this season (32.7 percent, ranking them 20th because shooting across the league is down).
Meeks and Nash were seen as a two offseason additions that addressed that need and Bryant embraced the role of outside shooter at the London Olympics and it’s paying off so far this year as he’s shooting 55.1 percent from the field and 44.1 percent from 3. In order for D’Antoni’s system to work as well as it can, guys like Meeks and Blake and Metta World Peace are going to have to knock down their open looks when the stars are double-teamed.
5. Keep Dwight happy.
“I think your margin of error is to win a championship and that’s not easy, I don’t care at any level,” D’Antoni said Thursday. The other error D’Antoni must avoid is marginalizing Howard. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said this week that the team views Howard as the “cornerstone of the franchise moving forward,” but the only way that happens is if the All-Star center signs a contract extension this summer. D’Antoni not only has to win, but he has to win in a way that features Howard.
“If we can clear things up and clear some room, I would expect Dwight Howard -- as soon as he gets healthy -- to be unstoppable,” D’Antoni said. The coach’s system provided plenty of opportunities for the similarly athletic and talented big man Amar’e Stoudemire in Phoenix and New York, but Stoudemire also had a midrange jumper portion of his game that made him more dynamic as a pop-out shooter in pick-and-roll situations.
Howard doesn’t have that. D’Antoni is also against one-on-one post-up possessions, calling them the most inefficient play in basketball, so that takes another Howard strength off the table. He’s got to tailor his offense to feature the big man somehow.
6. Protect his backcourt.
Nash is 38. Bryant is 34. Both should be playing minute totals below their age every night. D’Antoni will be tempted to stretch their usage out as much as possible, but he’s got to trust Meeks, Morris and Blake to back those guys up.
“I’m going to say I’m going to take care of (Nash), cut his minutes down – him and Kobe – and every time I want to win, they’re going to play a lot,” D’Antoni said, trying to make light of his own coaching downfall. “That’s just the way it is.”
That can’t stay the way it will be if D’Antoni wants his future Hall of Fame backcourt playing their best come playoff time.
7. Drown out the noise.
Spoelstra started off just 9-8 in the Big Three era and heard it from everywhere that it was only a matter of time before Pat Riley pulled him from his coaching seat and took his job. He weathered that storm and then had to hear all the same questions again when Miami blew a 2-1 Finals lead and lost the championship to Dallas. Yet Spoelstra persevered, adapted to the job while staying true to his fundamental beliefs about the game and lo and behold, got to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy last June.
If D’Antoni thinks he has been through the wringer already from his failed time in New York, he’s in for a rude awakening. D’Antoni hadn’t even landed in L.A. yet this week and Lakers legend Magic Johnson was already criticizing his hiring over Phil Jackson. If the Lakers struggle, he won’t be compared to Mike Brown -- the coach he’s actually replacing. He’ll be compared to Jackson -- the coach with 11 championships to his none. He needs to embrace the challenge, not cower from it, and believe in himself.
“Our expectations are to win a championship, we have the team and players to do that,” D’Antoni said, showing the right attitude. “Boy, is this fun trying. I can’t think of a better group and a better city and a better fan base to try to get it done.”
He has to know that if he doesn’t get it done, the fan base will certainly be able to think of a better coach for the job.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.