By Couper Moorhead
When the Miami HEAT found themselves down four with half a minute to play in the biggest game of the season, it was nothing they hadn’t seen before. They had been in that position time after time, and time after time they had come up short. No matter. They knew what to do.
It’s nice to think of great coaching, at least the great coaching that’s going to make the sizzle reel, as a brilliant play call setting up a game-winner or a major adjustment swinging playoff series. In that final minute against Detroit, there were certainly important strategic moves. They knew what to run in order for Goran Dragic to score within six seconds to make it a one-point game. They knew to trap full-court off a make and not immediately foul. They knew where to lead the tip on a jump ball so Dragic could have a chance at a breakaway basket. They even got a little lucky when Stanley Johnson committed a technical foul. Important stuff, but that wasn’t why Miami won.
With a possession that perfectly fit the tone of their season, they won because they didn’t quit.
Victory was hugely important on that night for a number of reasons we don’t need to go into here beyond that they involved all the fine print that comes with a playoff race. As crucial as the result was in terms of the standings, how much did it, or should it, matter when evaluating the work done by Erik Spoelstra?
Turning a season around from 11-30 in January to the No. 7 seed (as of March 30) is as remarkable a story as you’re going to find in the regular season. At one point a projection model on fivethirtyeight.com gave Miami less than one percent chance of making the playoffs. Today that number sits over 80. Great stories drive votes and Spoelstra is receiving well-deserved publicity for end-of-season awards.
Here’s the thing – Spoelstra was submitting just as strong a coaching performance when the team was losing as he is widely considered to be doing today.
“The reason they’re so successful is the job he did and the staff did while they were losing,” said Ron Rothstein, Spoelstra’s former assistant coach. “Those guys have never let go of the rope. It’s spectacular. That’s not easy to do in this league.”
As far as the on-court product, there haven’t been nearly as many changes as one might expect for a team with such a drastic turnaround.
Defensively the team has always played with an aggressive tone, pressuring the ball and fighting over screens, over the top of a conservative scheme with Hassan Whiteside dropping back into the paint and every wing staying home on shooters whenever possible.
On the scoring end, where Miami has been a Top 10 team since January 17th (the first win of the winning streak), the goals have never changed. They were a pick-and-roll, drive-and-kick team before and they remain the same today. In fact one of the numbers that came up again and again during those early losing months was how strong the team’s shot profile, with a ton of attempts at the rim and in the corners, always seemed to be.
We can quantify this. Using qSQ, or Quantified Shot Quality, from Second Spectrum’s player tracking data, we know that through the first 41 games of the season Miami had the shot profile of a team expected to shoot an effective field-goal percentage of 50.0. Since then, their qSQ has gone up less than a percentage point to 50.7. The same applies to the defense, where Miami had a Top 5 qSQ before (49.5 percent) and a Top 8 qSQ after (50.0) largely because of their ability to defend the paint and suffocate the ever-popular three-point line.
“[Spoelstra knows] how to put players in the right position so they can blossom,” Dragic said. “That’s the most important thing as a coach, that you can create a system that is fitting for everybody. Everybody can play their game.”
What we don’t have a perfect number for is the eye-test proven observation that the team started playing its tail off in the first week of the season and hasn’t stopped to smell even the most fragrant of roses – the sort that tend to show up when you’ve run off 13 consecutive victories.
“The thing about what they did, they never really changed,” Tom Thibodeau said before facing Miami in March. “They played tough and smart.”
Process before results, as they say.
So what changed? Getting consistently healthy was, short of a panacea, hugely helpful. It isn’t just that Dion Waiters’ ability to penetrate balances out the floor for Dragic, and vice versa, or that Wayne Ellington’s shooting helps everyone but there was finally a consistent rotation. Players stayed in the same role for more than a few games at a time. Rhythm developed. There’s always some randomness involved in shooting, not just in Miami going from one of the league’s worst three-point shooting teams to one of the best but in opponents at times seemingly forgetting how to shoot at all against Miami. That randomness is why you focus on getting the good shots and limiting the ones you allow.
There was a swing, too, in the smallest of sample sizes. In the first 41, Miami was 8-15 in games that were within five points with less than five minutes on the clock. Bottom of the ladder. Since then, they’re 11-5 in those same situations.
Ask yourself this: if the HEAT, one win away from being the first team in league history to reach .500 after sinking 19 games under, had simply played .500 ball the entire season rather than needing such a drastic turnaround, would you be thinking about this team differently?
Your mileage on that may vary, but the dramatics are also an opportunity. Extremes crack the window open, allowing us a glimpse at the individuals involved.
“[Spoelstra’s] done so much for our group,” Ellington said. “One thing I’ll say is the way he continues to motivate us, the way he continues to keep us inspired, the way he continues to stay on us and preach our habits and standards. He saw the big picture all along.
“I’ve been in a lot of situations where coaches will quit on a team that’s 11-30. He never, ever, even cracked or thought about lying down. That character that he has, and he showed, is the character of our team now. We continue to fight night in and night out and it starts with him as our leader.”
If the turnaround never happened, if the HEAT didn’t share the league’s best winning percentage since mid-January and instead had merely hung around playoff positioning all year, there would still be plenty to appreciate. Namely, that Spoelstra gets the buy-in from his players.
When Ellington was returning from injury and struggling to find his place with the team, Spoelstra asked to watch film together in the coach’s office.
“He came and talked to me not just as a player, but as a man,” Ellington said. “He said, ‘Look, I know you can do better in these positions. You want to be on the court and help us, we need you to do these things for us on the defensive end.’ Those type of things, you respect a coach for coming to you.”
“Spo can be very direct, very to the point, and very forceful in a non-threatening way,” Rothstein says.
When James Johnson, something of a revelation this season as a point-foward-center, came out in the first seven games of the season shooting below 35 percent from the field, there was no special conversation. Just regular film. The mantra that Spoelstra repeats every day and writes at the top of every practice plan, ‘One Percent Better,’ at work.
“It’s not Good Guy, Bad Guy,” Johnson says. “It’s real. He keeps it real 100 percent of the time. Sometimes you might say that’s a bad guy, or sometimes coach is getting on me, but he’s just being real with you. He can do that with anyone in this locker room, anyone on his staff.”
That’s part of the job, too. Spoelstra has surrounded himself with workers – player development specialists and video-room disciples who execute the daily, sometimes tedious, grind.
“One of the biggest things about Coach Spo is he has so much power and doesn’t abuse it,” Johnson said. “He shares it amongst his staff. I feel like every one of those coaches on his staff has the same power when they tell you something.”
So when Spoelstra, with more than a few late-night texts, tells his lead veteran to work on his dribble mid-range shot, there’s a coach to send Dragic to without having to micromanage the work from there.
It always comes back to the man at the top, because over his head hangs the sword. Watch Spoelstra after practice and you’re likely to catch him jumping in on those side drills or spending a few minutes with his players as they walk off the floor. There’s room for music and laughter in a gym where winning is treated as a very serious matter, but nobody gets off the hook.
“You have a different personality in each team,” Dragic said, comparing Spoelstra to a psychologist. “Everybody, they react differently. You cannot talk to every player the same. You need to find that thing.
“He has that approach that when he needs to be a bad guy, he’s a bad guy, but not on that level that you hate him, that you don’t like him. He always puts the team in front of everything. It’s nothing personal. We just want to win. He just wants you to be a better player, to be a better performer. When he starts a conversation from that, only good things are going to happen.”
Sometimes those conversations are ones Spoelstra has with himself. Just in this past week he has used time in post-game pressers to repent for not changing up defensive coverages as Damian Lillard was dropping 49 points and for not giving Okaro White a few more minutes. You can rarely pull enough teeth to get him to talk about himself, but he stands in front of mistakes while pushing others to the fore of success.
“What he does is he does it his way, the way he’s most comfortable with,” Rothstein said. “You can’t be who you’re not. Players will sniff that out . . . You try and be who you’re not, and you’ll have a problem. Eventually, it’ll get you.”
It’s not entirely accurate when we say that Spoelstra submitted just as strong a performance in the first half of the season because coaching isn’t just about the on-stage performance, about the in-game moves and run-stopping timeouts. That’s what the portion of the job we get to see, but the bulk of the iceberg is below dark water.
“What comes before that is always culture and leadership,” Spoelstra said. “Your team’s ability to communicate with each other and to be able to handle adversity together. [If you’re] able to do those things, the X’s and O’s become that much more impactful.”
We could run through a laundry list of little schematic tweaks which have helped win games this season, from the faux-pressing killing valuable shot clock seconds to the spacing which creates a Tyler Johnson backdoor cut to the precision required to maintain a top transition defense while wings crash the offensive boards. All of it crucially important, but none of it more than the fact that this team believes in and follows its leadership – leadership that works the process so the players can focus on creating the results.
The HEAT control their own destiny now because they never stopped believing that they always did. As much as any system or late-game call, that’s coaching.