Erik Spoelstra Can Cement Spot as All-Time Great Coach

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Erik Spoelstra smiles in a recent game.
(Erik Drost/Wikimedia Commons)
Colton Pool @CPoolReporter May 25, 2022, 8:41 AM

Erik Spoelstra sensed a great level of despondency. That’s why the Miami head coach felt he hardly needed to say anything.

The Heat, who have NBA championship odds of +500, were trailing by as many as 13 points in the first half to open the Eastern Conference Finals at home against Boston. The Celtics were in control, dictating the rhythm of the game and countered much of Miami’s attempts to come back.

Throughout his career, Spoelstra’s shown a mastery in managing bold personalities and facilitating their cohesion in a quest for titles. Halftime of this game was no different. A loud, boisterous speech may have only intensified discouraged thoughts and led to a worse outcome than the one that seemed imminent.

So Spoelstra said little. His players already knew what needed to change, another sign of Spoelstra’s expertise as a coach. Their defensive effort and focus needed to be fixed.

And it was. The Heat held the Celtics to 14 points in the third quarter as they made 2 of 15 shots in that frame.

“Obviously you have a heightened attention to detail,” Spoelstra said of the playoffs. “If you’re driven by competition and the stakes get raised, they’re going to raise the level of play. It’s not about trying to get bigger numbers. It’s about doing what’s required.”

Boston Celtics-Miami Heat Eastern Conference Finals Series

The top-seeded Miami Heat host the No. 2-seeded Celtics at 8:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics, who have the second-best NBA Finals odds of +230, are 1.5-point favorites according to NBA betting lines.

After the Heat won Game 1, 118-107, they lost at home 127-102. They bounced back to win Game 3, 109-103, but then Boston evened the series with a 102-82 victory on Monday.

The opening clash of the series alone underscored how closely contested it is.

“It’s crazy because you didn’t have to say too much,” Heat forward Jimmy Butler said of Game 1’s halftime. “We already knew what we were doing wrong: turning the ball over and not getting it back. So we talked about it and came out and was like, ‘You know what? We’re at home. We’ve got to play better basketball. We’ve got to play better as a team.’ We did that.”

Erik Spoelstra’s Track Record

Spoelstra has a proven history of setting talented players up to succeed, despite enormous expectations he faced when he began.

He was an assistant in Miami for 11 years before taking the helm as Hall of Famer Pat Riley focused on a managerial role. With Dwyane Wade already on the team, the Heat enjoyed two winning seasons at the beginning of Spoelstra’s tenure.

Then LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined in 2010. In the following four years, the Heat advanced to four consecutive NBA Finals. Spoelstra is one of five coaches to accomplish that. 

The Heat won consecutive championships in 2011-12 and 2012-13. Spoelstra is among nine head coaches to help a team do so.

But even after James returned to Cleveland, the Heat kept winning. They’ve been to the playoffs 11 times in Spoelstra’s 14 seasons, as Spoelstra became the winningest head coach ever with Miami. His time as head coach is tied for the fourth-longest with one NBA franchise.

Spoelstra is 51 years old, but he’s 23rd with 660 regular season wins and eighth with 95 playoff wins.

As evidenced by even this season, when James and the Lakers failed to make the playoffs and the Nets featuring Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant didn’t get past the first round, talent doesn’t inherently lead to championships. Infrastructure is pivotal as well.

After James left the Heat, they’ve continued attracting top-level talent and have remained relevant. Miami, for example, was in the “bubble” NBA Finals in 2020. And Spoelstra could very well win another title this season.

That’s a credit to the coach. Even a star like Butler is willing to put aside any selfish motivations as long as it means his team wins. When the Heat won Game 1 last week, Butler was asked how much he enjoyed his 41-point performance.

“I don’t do this to score 40 points,” he said. “I play the way that I play to win, by all means necessary. And it just so happened that I scored 40, but if I score 40 and lose, I’m going to be really pissed off.”

Erik Spoelstra’s Principles Shine

After the Celtics’ lead had faded, following their double-digit loss to begin the conference finals, Boston head coach Ime Udoka seemed fairly certain he knew what the difference was.

The Celtics, he said, were “out-toughed, out-physicaled.”

“They came out in the second half and wanted to up their physicality and aggression on both ends, and they did that. I don’t think we obviously responded well on either end of the floor,” Udoka said. “We just lost our composure.”

Toughness has been a staple for the Heat as of late. That helped them improve defensively in that third quarter.

Butler noted the Heat are better when their defense dictates their offense, which may seem like an old-school mentality. But stops can lead to opportunities in transition which can make ball movement easier which can create open shots.

“That’s the style of basketball we call Miami Heat basketball,” Butler said. “Gritty, dog-like, worried about getting stops instead of about getting buckets.”

Spoelstra also felt the Heat contained the ball at the point of attack at a better rate. He stressed they don’t play defense solely one-on-one. Their team mentality requires them to close in on gaps, rotate and even scramble at times.

But their scheme, with Spoelstra as their leader, worked. 

“It’s like, ‘What took us so long?’” Heat forward PJ Tucker said of the third quarter. “It took us a long time to get aggressive. They were an aggressive team in the first half. We were way too soft. And they got pretty much everything they wanted, and we finally picked it up in the third quarter.”

But halftime adjustments and tactical decisions aside, arguably the most impressive aspect of Spoelstra’s team is chemistry.

Butler has highlighted the trust he has in his teammates on several occasions. He appreciates the scoring burden isn’t on him as much as it was on some of his previous teams.

Butler’s approach seems to be infectious. On a night when Tucker made 2 of 5 shots in 31 minutes, Butler said he is one of the most important reasons the Heat were winning.

Spoelstra echoed that sentiment. Especially when the Heat were without the veteran presence of Kyle Lowry on the floor, Tucker’s defensive prowess seemed to be uplifting for the rest of the team.

“I’m glad I have the guys that I have around me and with me and I know that they’re going to fight and go to war, to battle with me every single day,” Butler said. “So I’m going to keep trusting them and giving them the ball.”

This has been a common value for Heat teams over the past decade. And Spoelstra’s coaching is the common thread across that time.

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About the Author

Colton Pool

Read More @CPoolReporter

Colton Pool is a Web Content Writer for BetMGM living in Bozeman, Montana, focusing on the NFL and NBA. Previously, he covered Montana State football at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and worked at newspapers in his home state of North Dakota. He graduated from North Dakota State in 2015.

Colton Pool is a Web Content Writer for BetMGM living in Bozeman, Montana, focusing on the NFL and NBA. Previously, he covered Montana State football at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and worked at newspapers in his home state of North Dakota. He graduated from North Dakota State in 2015.