Erik Spoelstra has been to the NBA Finals four times and has taken the Larry O'Brien trophy home twice in his coaching career. What is remarkable is that he is just one of five head coaches in the entire league that have an NBA championship on their resume, as well as owning the 20th best win percentage of all head coaches in NBA history, as well as the 2nd best in terms of win percentage in the playoffs of coaches that have participated in more than 50 playoff games.
That last stat is easily the most surprising. Especially given he is ahead of legendary coaches such as Gregg Popovich, Red Auerbach, Pat Riley and Chuck Daly, only ranking behind the one and only Phil Jackson.
But given how awesome Spoelstra has proven to be during his playoff coaching career, it really shouldn't be too much of a surprise. He has playoff chops and then some, just remember back to the 2013 Finals, game 6. Potentially, one of the greatest games in NBA history. The game will forever be remembered for Ray Allen's season saving corner three-pointer, but from a coaching perspective, what I remember, was Erik Spoelstra subbing Chris Bosh into the game. The Heat needed a three and he subbed Mike Miller out for Bosh, even though the Heat needed a three to tie the game and Bosh had made just 21 threes during the entire season. You also have to remember that Miller was in on the last offensive play from the Heat, when they got another offensive rebound and Miller assisted LeBron on a clutch trey.
Obviously, as we know, Bosh grabbed the biggest offensive board of his life, kicked it to Allen and the rest is history.
Some will call that decision from Spoelstra 'lucky' or even 'obvious', but I call it genius and a well taken risk.
Even take just this regular season when Chris Bosh went down -- all the best to him by the way, get well soon, Chris. I was almost sure, given how slowly Miami played (pace of around 91 at the time), Spo would roll with either Amar'e Stoudemire or Josh McRoberts at the starting four spot. Instead, he went small, raised their pace and completely changed their style of play, even improving their play, despite losing, in my opinion, their best overall player.
So when Spoelstra walked into this second round playoff series, against the Toronto Raptors, the NBA world should have been slightly more aware as to what Toronto were entering into.
In game one, the Heat threw the Raptors off their game. Miami more than assisted Toronto in their continued soiling of the metaphorical playoff bed. But the first of this best of seven wasn't really a fair fight. With poor performances from...well...everyone, game one was like a heavyweight champion taking on someone like me, only if I had one hand tied behind my back. Yet, somehow, Toronto stayed close enough for a Kyle Lowry halfcourt shot to force overtime, before the Heat took it out.
Game two, as we saw yesterday, was a different story. Toronto's big names finally showed up, including the hugely disappointing Kyle Lowry and his elbow, even if the shooting percentages don't tell the same story. Miami also came to the party and I thought, that especially for the end of the 3rd/early fourth quarter section of the game where they dominated both on the scoreline and through Xs and Os. In actual fact, throughout the entire game, I thought Miami had a far better game plan than Toronto and if it weren't for a sloppy start and an impressive Raptor finish, this would've been a comfortable victory for the Heatles.
Since I touched on it, let's have a look at the start and finish in which Miami struggled in.
To open the game, the Heat looked lethargic and allergic to making even a proper chest pass, getting into double digits for turnovers within the first quarter and finishing the game with 21 as a team. Since this is a Spoelstra appreciation article, I am obliged to point out that this is completely the fault of the players. It shouldn't be up to an NBA level head coach, let alone a historically great one by percentages and championships, to teach these guys where to throw the damn ball. I mean, they get paid millions upon millions of dollars every year, the worst they can do is get a pass on target.
Apart from their far from faultless first twelve minutes in which they went down 29-19, you can argue that the Heat outplayed the Raptors. Spoelstra's evil genius and black magic can be attributed to this.
I'd first like to turn your attention to Miami's spot on strategy of how to limit the production of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Most have attributed their cold shooting to being merely that: a cold streak. But I have some tough news for optimistic Toronto fans when I say that the Heat have figured those two out.
What's weird is, unlike Toronto's first round opponent, the Heat don't have lockdown defenders on the perimeter like Paul George and George Hill to throw at Canada's All-Stars. Instead, they limit the duo's output through sheer, brilliant, intelligent play. If I were you, I would study Miami's pick and roll defense first and foremost when talking about how to stop Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Let me just show you what Kyle Lowry had to do to hit one of the most clutch shots in the entire game:
To the naked eye, that's bad pick and roll defense but that's the type of shot Miami are willing to give up to this Raptors team. By keeping Whiteside close to the rim by having him sink down and having Goran Dragic or whoever else is defending the ball-handler, chase him over the screen, it leaves the mid-range jump-shot open. This is simply because the ball-handler's defender is usually behind his man, chasing him off the three-point line and Whiteside is patrolling the paint ready to swat anything out of sight, keeping anyone in their right mind away from the rim.
This means that the mid-range is open and ready for business.
Unfortunately for the Raps, their two star guards, have either been unwilling in Lowry's case or just inefficient when taking these wide open mid-ranges. In terms of Lowry, during the regular season, from 16 feet to just inside the three-point line, he attempted only 10% of his field goals in that range, while only converting on 36% on them. Compare that to the 67% he shot combined from the rim and three and you have a decision staring Lowry directly in the face.
By taking away his two favorite options, Lowry now either forces bad shots in those places or takes shots like the one above in his comfort zone. This is part of the reason why Lowry has gone just 2 for 14 on attempts from behind the arc.
Of course, if Lowry decides like he did in the fourth and overtime, to start taking those mid-range jumpers, the Heat are toast. But then again, unlike in the clip I just showed you, on a majority of plays, Valanciunas's screen isn't that good, so Dragic is able to get back to his man with relative ease, to contest the mid-range.
Moving on to the other side of the ball, Erik Spoelstra has gotten a lot out of his team on that end of the court too.
In slight contrast to the Heat's PnR defense, the Raptors run ICE defense on the pick and roll, in which the purpose is to force the ball-handler away from the screen, while the big man sinks towards the hoop, thus once again opening up the mid-range. The only thing is, Miami is very willing to take these shots and have found very easy ways to exploit this with Hassan Whiteside. Take a look:
In theory, Jonas does very well to contain this, but in reality, Whiteside attacks through the perfect cut to the rim, while no Raptor defender decides to slide over to help.
As further proof, the Heat are adapt at taking the mid-range shots, just watch both Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic's game tape from this game:
Another thing Spo did really well on this side of the ball was finding ways to attack Toronto's weak links defensively, especially DeMar DeRozan. Who Dwayne Casey did his best to hide on whoever he thought was the least threatening offensive player, but whoever that was, Spo would tell his team to relentlessly attack him. Just look at Joe Johnson on this post up. I mean, he's Joe Johnson. I don't watch a lot of Heat basketball, but I don't think 34 year old Joe Johnson does this very often anymore:
Anyways, Spoelstra praise over. If he continues winning his game of chess on the sideline against Dwayne Casey, there's no doubting who this series goes to. The question is, does Dwayne Casey have what it takes to answer back? Only time will tell.
Like what you see here? Make sure to follow this blog so you never miss a post and while you're at it, you could follow me on Twitter (@BradWinter12)!