SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
He has been criticized by fans, yelled at by Dwyane Wade and blasted by Charles Barkley for not giving the ball more to LeBron James late in games. But Erik Spoelstra has also begun to earn something else from his players and opponents: credit.
There was James’ unprompted testimonial after Thursday’s win at Indiana: “He coached a spectacular series to put us in position to succeed. He made some unbelievable adjustments.” (James asserted earlier in the playoffs that because of Spoelstra, "We're never blind-sided by anything.")
Then there was Bulls guard Richard Hamilton gushing on NBA TV: “Spoelstra doesn’t get enough credit for the job he has done with that team. Awesome job.”
In private interviews, Heat players cite several reasons why Spoelstra is a better coach than a year ago: improved communication, more flexibility and a willingness to take their input.
Not everything has worked, such as starting Dexter Pittman in Game 3 against Indiana. But many of his moves paid dividends recently: starting Shane Battier in Chris Bosh’s absence and having him defend David West; fronting Carmelo Anthony in Game 1 of the Knicks series (which flummoxed him) and often fronting the Pacers' big men (Roy Hibbert said the Heat kept them from getting the ball as much as they wanted); and moving Bosh to center late in the season.
But Heat players said Spoelstra's best adjustment in the final three games of the Pacers series was putting West, instead of Hibbert, in pick-and-rolls "where LeBron and Dwyane can get past him and attack Hibbert," as Battier explained.
And of Spoelstra drawing a $25,000 fine Friday for talking about how much James and Wade are hit in the head, Wade said: "I love it - coach stepping up for his guys."
Contrary to conventional thinking, Battier asserts, “Spo’s job is maybe the most difficult in the NBA because of the level of talent, the expectations. It would be hard to imagine someone else coaching this team. He’s detail-oriented and prepared, and in this league, if you don’t have the details, players know it. He has done as good a job as anyone can with this team.”
Last summer, Spoelstra met with Oregon football coach Chip Kelly, who plays a relentlessly-attacking offense, and implemented some of his ideas on spacing and pacing. The up-tempo approach worked for a while, but players couldn’t maintain it after the All-Star break because of the compacted schedule and mediocre rebounding. “Offensively, Spo’s been more open to thinking outside the box with this team,” Battier said.
But Haslem noted a subtle defensive shift that players appreciated: “We’ve always been a protect-the-paint, non-gambling defense. Now we pride ourselves on being disruptive defensively more than any year I’ve been here. To get our guys in the open floor, you have to maybe gamble a little defensively.”
Bosh, before his injury, said: “You can tell how much effort and hard work Spo put in during the offseason. He’s just gotten better all over the board. You can see in the way he carries himself and delivers his message.”
Bosh said Spoelstra’s willingness to relinquish most of the play-calling during the regular season “was a huge thing because he wants to put his imprint on every game. Sometimes, you just have to let players figure it out.”
Mario Chalmers said Spoelstra called only about 10 plays a game this season and “it made us a better team. We play more freely. I don’t have to look over at him. Last year, he called plays on every possession” except fast breaks. Chalmer said Saturday that Spoelstra is calling more plays in the playoffs "but we're on the same page."
Also, Haslem said this season, “communication between the coaches and players is at the highest it has ever been. This year, Spo’s been real open to a lot of suggestions from players.”
In Wade’s eyes, here’s the biggest change in Spoelstra this year: “Trusting people, everyone from the assistant coaches to the players. When you’re a young coach, you want to control everything. He’s shown the ability to let go some. We commend him for that.” Naturally, appreciation from most of his fan base will come only with a championship.
### What’s the Heat’s best lineup without Chris Bosh? In the playoffs, it’s James, Wade, Battier, Chalmers and Joel Anthony, a unit that is plus 31 in 53 minutes. The Heat is minus two in 41 minutes with starter Ronny Turiaf instead of Anthony paired with the other four, but Anthony is more comfortable coming off the bench.
### Spoelstra said Bosh, at this point, is only able to ride a bicycle and do conditioning work, but no on-court work, which would suggest he's not going to be ready for the early stages of the Eastern Conference Finals, and potentially beyond. Spoelstra said he is "still out indefinitely."
### Game 6 of Heat-Pacers was ESPN’s most watched program since the BCS national championship game. The 17.4 rating in Miami-Fort Lauderdale was comparable to the 17.7 average Dolphins rating last season.
### Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has noticed a shift in sentiment: “With Jeff Ireland, now you see people are recognizing, maybe the guy did have a plan! Maybe we did do something right!”
Conversations with players have convinced Ross the coaching has improved: “Everything I hear from the players is, ‘This is different. We’re happy with what’s going on.’” And this is the first time I’ve been able to have my imprint on the team. I inherited an awful lot of what Wayne [Huizenga] did.”… The Dolphins are among a handful of teams that have been receiving consideration to appear on HBO’s Hard Knocks training camp series.
### There’s some support on the Marlins coaching staff to try to trade for Houston first baseman Carlos Lee, earning $18.5 million in the last year of his contract. But the front office has not pursued that, believing the Marlins have enough at first and that demoted Gaby Sanchez will get back on track. Lee (.306, four homers, 27 RBI) is 35 and subpar defensively.
### With Emilio Bonifacio out, the next six weeks will be critical for outfielder Chris Coghlan, who hit .321 and won Rookie of the Year in 2009 but has hit .241 in 674 at-bats since, including a 5-for-48 start this year before his big home run Friday. The Marlins are puzzled by the decline; Coghlan attributes it to injuries and not playing everyday. “I’ve been hitting the same way since college,” he said. “I know I’m a good player, but I need to stay out of my own way, not over-think.”
### Teammates’ eyebrows were raised when running back Duke Johnson and cornerback Tracy Howard, both five-star recruits, arrived on UM’s campus a week ago. Maurice Hagens saw enough in one week to call Johnson “amazing.”
“Wow,” Eduardo Clements said of Johnson. “Last week, in 7-on-7s, he caught a pass, made a move, ran for a touchdown, and I’m like, ‘Damn.’ And Tracy is everything everyone makes him out to be – the footwork, breaking on the ball.” Several Hurricanes like what they have seen of receivers Malcolm Lewis and Robert Lockhart.
### Former players love how they have been welcomed back by Al Golden, but when Clements saw Clinton Portis on campus last week, “I was scared to say something. He’s a guy I look up to.” So good guy teammate Mike James got Clements on the phone with Portis, who counseled him about sharing carries with two other backs – the likely scenario for James, Clements and Johnson this fall.