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Saturday, June 11, 2011
Updated: June 12, 12:09 PM ET
Erik Spoelstra's final exam

By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com

Erik Spoelstra
Erik Spoelstra was all smiles on Saturday, one day before the biggest test of his coaching career.

For Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, Game 5 had to be excruciating. It wasn't just that Miami handed control of the series to Dallas after another fourth-quarter lead slipped away. They also squandered the Heat's most prolific offensive game in six weeks. Not since April 21 -- Game 3 of the Philadelphia series -- had the Heat put together this kind of offensive exhibition.

For the first 43 minutes of Game 5 in Dallas, the Heat played the kind of offense they'd aspired to all season long (and gave us a taste of during the final 15 games or so before the playoffs). They managed a handful of run-outs and flourishes on the fast break, but the majority of the buckets were products of good-ol' half-court offense that hummed like a well-tuned machine.

The Heat might have steamrolled through the Eastern Conference bracket with a 12-3 record, but offensively the journey was a slow, grueling affair. Every trip down the floor against Boston and Chicago was a grind, as Spoelstra is so fond of saying. Nothing came easy. The more reliable a set had been in the regular season, the more likely the Bulls or Celtics had it snuffed out in seconds.

In short, the month of May was anything but an acquittal of the Heat's offensive potential. If not for the outlandish hero shots in the final few minutes of many of those games, the Heat's offensive efficiency stats would have looked positively Bucksian.

But on Thursday night, the Heat orchestrated some beautiful stuff. For the first three and half quarters, every guy on the floor moved with purpose and flow.

Yes, that was Mario Chalmers and Eddie House setting cross-screens along the baseline to get LeBron James a look at close range. And yes, those gentlemen setting double screens up top to give the Heat slashers a red carpet to the hoop were Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem. And yes, that was Bosh sizing up Ian Mahinmi like a predator, then attacking him one-on-one.

When Dwyane Wade left the game in the second quarter with a bad hip, the Heat plugged in Mike Miller and didn't miss a beat. The Heat signed Miller to pair him on the same side of the floor as James for some drive-and-kick basketball, and that's what Miami got during two of its first four trips downcourt in the second half with Wade still back in the locker room.

Know the last time this season the Heat scored more points per possession during a game and lost?

Never.

But, as Spoelstra noted Saturday, there was a problem: Dallas was even more efficient.

All that pretty basketball the Heat choreographed on their end of the floor? It amounted to bupkis in the final score because it was ultimately wiped away by a hail storm. Basketball-sized hail, as a matter of fact. Raining down from the 3-point arc.

Imagine watching this from the sideline as a member of the Miami coaching staff, the people who spend the entire days and nights poring over film and the X's and O's, prepping for games the way a conscientious doctoral student practices to defend his dissertation. The execution of the offensive game plan probably exceeded even their highest expectations.

Yet the Heat returned to Miami with a 3-2 deficit despite those best efforts. And now Spoelstra and his squad must choose how to compose the 85-90 most important basketball possessions of their lives. Judging from the first five games of this series, they don't have a single one to waste.

If you're Spoelstra, it's logical to build on what worked over the first 90 percent of Game 3 because the Heat figured out some important issues offensively. They made some subtle adjustments that enabled them to earn higher-percentage shots than the ones they'd been getting of late.

Spoelstra encouraged early offense -- shepherding with a "Go, Go, Go!" and a third-base coach's wave signal from the sideline (or, in Spoelstra's case, from a spot 5 feet inbounds). With a series of quick high pick-and-rolls and some penetration against a scrambling Mavs defense, the Heat were able to generate some easy buckets.

In Game 6, the Heat need to maintain that dedication to early offense. The Heat have a gift: two guys in James and Wade to whom a backpedaling defense will naturally gravitate to first. This provides space for shooters like Chalmers, Miller and the midrange bigs. Just by initiating the offense more quickly, the Heat found Juwan Howard for an open jumper at the foul line and Chalmers for a clean look at a 3-pointer.

LeBron James
LeBron James must find shots close to the basket on Sunday.

If the Heat can push the ball to create early offense and run out on a quarter of their possessions, they should be able to lay the foundation for an efficient offensive night.

Then, of course, there's LeBron. Despite his ineffectiveness as a scorer in the fourth quarter, the Heat should persevere with their strategy of finding effective ways to set up James near the hoop. That cross-screen along the baseline set by the 1 (Chalmers and even Eddie House on one play) for LeBron is a relatively new wrinkle undoubtedly drawn up to help get LeBron in close proximity to the hoop. Ditto for that stack James crossed beneath to get a deep catch, which resulted in a foul by Shawn Marion.

And say what you want about that charge call on LeBron against Tyson Chandler in the closing minutes, but LeBron's baseline cut from the left corner behind the Mavs' defense to catch the pass from Wade was exactly the kind of play that enables James to get into attack mode.

The Heat must continue the strategy. To run any fewer than a dozen sets whose primary goal is to get James a catch within 10 feet of the rim would be coaching malpractice.

Miami made another smart adjustment in Game 5. On many half-court sets, the Heat lifted their big men above the free throw line, particularly on ball-screen actions for Chalmers and Wade. In doing so, they opened up the paint for penetration and basket cuts for those big men.

The Heat worked numerous shots at the rim thanks to high double-screens. And with the Heat's big men constantly on the move romping through the paint from the top of the floor with all that free space, James, Wade and Chalmers threaded the needle for open shots at the rim. Take away that desperation pick-and-pop, and the Heat scored 14 points on the nine occasions when Bosh, Haslem and Howard caught passes, then either took an open shot or attacked the basket.

The more often the Heat can use Bosh as either a pressure release on the weak side poised for an open midrange jumper or have him slip screens to catch a downhill pass en route to the rim, the more efficient their offense will be. The Mavericks will almost certainly adjust their rotations to make sure their big man defending the back line meets Bosh and Haslem before the Heat's forwards can attack. But the Heat still need to force the defense to make those kinds of decisions.

While they're at it, the Heat should deploy James as one of those roll men. With his hands, speed and strength, LeBron is a natural to catch and go off a screen, as he's demonstrated so many times late in the regular season with that vaunted Wade-James pick-and-roll.

Although they should be selective and not fall into iso-heavy patterns, because that's a foolproof way to bring the team's offensive flow to a screeching halt, Wade and James often have matchup advantages. Wade's post game is producing results and forcing the Mavs into difficult help decisions, especially when the Heat clear out and/or lift the other four guys above the foul line.

James has left a lot of money on the table one-on-one, passing up opportunities to attack Jason Kidd. The seams exist and defenders are there for the taking. No, the isolation shouldn't account for more than a fraction of those 85-90 possessions Sunday night -- and LeBron has no business spending more than a few of those trips downcourt beyond 15 feet from the basket -- but strategic strikes by Wade and James should be in the mix when the individual matchups favor Miami.

The evolution of the Heat's playbook over the course of the season hasn't been sufficiently praised. What started with a few basic high pick-and-roll plays graduated into a rich volume of sets that helped the Heat finish as the league's third-most efficient offense.

Early we saw a reliance on Rick Adelman-inspired corner sets. Eventually, the Heat started to rely on a series of "elbow sets" run through Bosh and using James and Wade on the move on corner cuts. They implemented elements of the "Hawk" offense to free up shooters, and continued to refine all of these sets to create more options and additional triggers.

During March and into the postseason, the coaching staff was forced to brew up even more creative stuff against defenses that had scouted and anticipated the Heat's bread-and-butter plays. All the while, the Heat's principal offensive players grew increasingly confident in their collective abilities to execute in the half court.

In Game 6, the Heat will take the floor and have about 87 chances to turn what's on the whiteboard and on their iPads into gold. Which pages they select from their playbook and how they execute those plays will ultimately determine their basketball mortality.