In Their Shoes: Erik Spoelstra

Flash forward a few years later to the 2014 NBA Finals where the Heat suffered another finals defeat and the ended the Big 3 era for good. In these finals the Heat were defeated in 5 games by the “on a revenge mission” San Antonio Spurs. After coming as close as humanly possible to a championship the year prior (Ray Allen says hi); the Spurs dominated the NBA Finals and played as beautiful a brand of basketball as the modern game has ever seen. The Mavs shot the shit out of the ball in those 5 games (47% from 3 as a team!) and whipped the ball around the perimeter forever searching for a better shot.

The Heatles on the other hand were tired. In the years since all of the Big 3 and supporting cast have echoed this, but despite that I would argue that the Heat were good enough to “steal” this title from Tim Duncan and company for a second time. Everyone knows the story of Game 1. By the time the 3rd Quarter was going, it was well over 100 degrees in the Spurs arena due to the air conditioning failing and by the 8 minute mark in the 4th with the Heat up 86-84 Lebron was forced to leave the game due to cramps. He would reenter the game with 4:33 left but would have to helped off for a final time just 30 seconds later with the Heat down 2. The Heat’s Big 3 were all rolling (along with Ray Allen) but San Antonio heat debilitated Miami and San Antonio would go onto win the game.

In Game 2, Lebron got took control of the game to the tune of 35, 10, and 3 and ensured the Heat would go home with a 1-1 split. But the return home was anything but sweet as the Spurs ran (passed) circles around the Heat’s defense. The Heat were blown out in Games 3-5 and on the surface it looks like the Heat were powerless to slow the Spurs offensive onslaught. However, this is not the case.

Just 2 years prior, Spoelstra had revamped the Heat offense to a “space and pace” style and then took it up a notch when Bosh was out injured against the Pacers in the 2nd round of the 2012 post season. Spo had finally unlocked the best version of the Big 3 Heat by going small with Shane Battier at 4. This only the fly adjustment catapulted the Heat to the title over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

However in the 2014 NBA Finals the Heat didn’t adjust the scheme or strategy to handle the ball movement of the Spurs. Since Lebron’s and Bosh’s arrivals in 2010 the Heat had been one of the most aggressive trapping teams. Their supreme athleticism allowed them to trap pick n’ rolls with the 3 help defenders flying around in rotations and passing lanes.

This defensive strategy works best against teams that have top level pick n’ roll players, below average ball movement, or role players that struggle off the bounce. None of this applies to the 2014 Spurs. Tony Parker at one point in his career was a dominate pick n’ roll player but by 2014 his size and limited athleticism had marginalized his pick n’ roll powers. There was no reason for the Heat to be blitzing pick n’ rolls or to doubling players like Boris Diaw in the post, thereby putting themselves in situations where 3 players had to guard 4. Because of this defensive game plan and the decision to stick with it the Spurs carved up the Heat defense with superior ball movement.

Now it’s impossible to know if the Heat coaching staff had considered adjust there defensive game plan or not but looking back it is painfully clear that the aggressive style Spoelstra had relied on was failing. Spoelstra needed to adjust. Had they switched to drop coverage and attempting to guard the pick n’ roll with 2 instead of 3 it could have disrupted the Spurs rhythm. I believe committing to switching all ball screens would have truly disrupted the Spurs and forced them into a more 1 on 1 style offensive attack. Especially with how by the end of the series Spoelstra had lost confidence in Chalmers and was having Lebron guard Parker. By switching pick n’ rolls it also would have limited the number of times Heat defenders were frantically closing out at Spurs shooters. Give players like Diaw, Kawhi, Manu, and even Green the ability to attack late/long closeouts and they will make the defense pay. By switching it negates the advantage the Spurs had against the aggressive, trapping that the Heat were doing.

Now in fairness to Spo the idea of switching everything wasn’t quite yet en-vogue in 2014 (it wasn’t until the Warriors small ball teams did it the next season that began the switch everything movement). Hell, small ball lineups had only begun to permeate around the NBA.

Ultimately, it’s easy to look back 6 plus years later at Spoelstra and say he should’ve done this or that. But it was more than clear in 2011 that Chalmers was superior to Bibby and needed to get the starting nod. Just as it was clear the Heat’s aggressive, blitzing defense was failing against the Spurs ball movement mastery. Erik Spoelstra is as fine a coach as there is in the NBA game but he and his staff were unable to identify the adjustments they needed to make to capture championships in 2011 and in 2014.

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