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Erik Spoelstra is the Heat’s biggest cheat code in NBA Finals


Erik Spoelstra is the Heat’s biggest cheat code in NBA Finals

If you forced me to define what I think makes a good coach in this modern league, my answer would be “Rigid flexibility”. It’s a paradox that demands being able to hold two things in your head at the same time, to understand two conflicting ideas can be true. If you’re too dogmatic, you live and die by the same double-edged sword. If you’re a kind of malleable, “players coach”, with no fixed ideology or approach to the game, you might end up under performing with a talented squad and getting let go by the Philadelphia 76ers. The most potent cocktail of bench leadership is the philosopher with no ego, the architect who can mark up blueprints on the fly, the sandwich artist who respects dietary restrictions and can add ingredients on demand. In other words, it’s the 28-year tenured employee of the Miami Heat, Erik Spoelstra.

Coach Spo is appropriately a product of the arctic, remote barrens of upstate, northwestern New York, in Buffalo. It’s even further out than Pat Riley’s ancestral steel town of Schenectady, which is apropos, as Spoelstra is the disciple who was forged in his mentor’s image and taken his philosophy to its platonic extreme. Riley’s iteration of “Heat Culture”, which dates back to the ‘80s Lakers team that eventually got sick of and quit on him, was about Riley first, as any early to mid ‘90s Knicks fan can attest. He was both a preening, armani suit-wearing, hair-slicked primadonna on the sideline soaking up credit, and an iron fisted dictator that demanded everything from his teams and gave back nothing. Spoelstra is the true believer, who took the good and worthwhile tenants from the conditioning test and body fat measuring bullshit and turned it into a religion of sacrifice, one that he doesn’t just demand from his players, but himself.

We focus on all the wrong things when we talk about Spoelstra. In classic American fashion, the first line in his obit will likely read that he was the first Asian-American head coach to win a championship in the four major North American sports. But he’s the best kind of nepo baby, with a bloodline as pedigreed and connected as any you’ll find in the league. His Dutch-Irish father, Jon Spoelstra, was a Notre Dame graduate who started working in marketing for the Buffalo Braves, then was the Trail Blazers General Manager for 10 years, and ended up as President for the Nets for a time in the 90s. Jon’s father Watson was a college basketball player and career sportswriter, and both men sound like they were irascible hardasses. The fruits of their labor is this video department, do-anything intern who came as a player coach from Euro ball and went on to succeed Pat Riley. Here’s a clip I found from his early days toiling in the bowels of the dearly departed Miami Arena:

When his longevity is mentioned, we talk about Spoelstra’s sturdiness and longevity in one job, how he is the constant, steadying presence maintaining HEAT CULTURE. But much like the coach he is most often compared to now, his only true remaining peer Greg Poppovich, what’s truly impressive is that Spoelstra is actually a different coach every year. Whether more of a game manager as a young coach presiding over the first true superteam, or making miracles happen with a ragtag bunch, perhaps not led, but embodied by a gritty temperamental scorer like Dion Waiters, Spoelstra is no Thibodeau, he makes lemonade and builds ships in the middle of oceans.

But at last, he has found not the best, but the most Spoelstra team imaginable. This band of brothers who don’t complain and might as well have “Next man up” tattooed across their collective collarbone. On the court, as Spoelstra once did, they’re a team of practice players, picking up dry cleaning and going on a run to the deli for sandwiches. Pick setters, board crashers, eager, practically fighting to make the extra pass or sacrifice their body for an offensive foul. This team of undrafted castoffs, a proverbial island of misfit toys, led by the ultimate misfit toy, former junior college star and Spoelstra’s on court avatar Jimmy Butler, has become the greatest upset story of the modern era.

The annoying portion of every profile about Spoelstra are these digestible, intimate moments writers tend to seize on, the human stories of Spoelstra leaning in with peripheral Heat players and being a dickhead/withholding father figure but pushing them to be their best selves. I’m quite sure this has much to do with the now unprecedented success of the underachieving regular season Miami teams who completely recast themselves in each postseason as a juggernaut, but let’s be clear. Erik Spoelstra is not some humanitarian ambassador with a mystic feel for the personalities on his side of the court, evangelizing the Riley Gospel of selflessness and wind sprints who gets the most out of his team because their training kicks in as other teams that are less conditioned physically and mentally falter. He’s a relentless tinkerer, a mad genius, and the best game-to-game postseason adjuster, perhaps, I’ve ever seen in the NBA.

In this postseason, the Heat won a string of improbable series against teams with far more talent than they had. But it was also a hilarious succession of absurd, underreported mismatches. A popular narrative is how the talent imbalance has been somewhat smoothed in recent years between the Eastern and long dominant Western Conference. But it’s also ground zero for dumbass incompetent coaches, as Spoelstra laid bare. One by one, Spo used Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Duncan Robinson, washed Kyle Lowery and Caleb Martin (and without their best and most reliable shooter!) to bully and beat up on Mike Budenholzer, Tom Thibodeau, and Joe Mazzula. He licked his finger and stuck it in Thibodeau’s ear as RJ Barrett and Julius Randle were fitted for, then placed snugly in, straitjackets. He got Budenholzer fired from his gig on his day off for stealing boxes. His crowning masterpiece was a seven-game exercise in stealing Joe Mazz’s hat and dangling it from a tree just beyond his reach.

In sports movies there’s a visual cliche you’ve seen a million times without probably realizing it. The director will apply some form of washed filter, and speed up the film and turn up the sound mix, and cut to a wobbly handheld that shakes along with the vibration of the crowd and large men stomping the ground, and apply a series of quick cuts to give the audience a sense for just how fast and disorienting professional sports can be. It’s a kind of confused tension I get the impression Joe Mazz feels when he goes to the bodega and has to make a last second candy decision at the front of the line, but you particularly saw it in the Eastern Conference Finals, as he watched from the sideline, blinkered and slack jawed as Al Horford ran the huddles for him and the series he had all the advantages in slipped away. Here’s a brief highlight package I put together of Mazzula’s performance:

In the zone defense- that Gladwell-esque outlier magical thinking cheat code, that is bizarrely effective for the Heat but no one else uses with anything approaching the same relative regularity- we find a perfect metaphor for Spoelstra. When you play zone you don’t play the man, you fight against that natural human instinct and instead play the ball and only the ball as you stand your ground. For the system to work, you need the personnel, but more than anything else you need discipline to pay attention and stick to your patch of court in concert with your teammates. And this is Spoelstra, he plays the ball, he fights impulse and comfort and habit and is constantly adjusting to what he is seeing in real time, what is happening in front of him, which takes a level head and supreme concentration. He is the anti-Mazzulla.

But now the Heat, coming out of a seven game bloodbath, may have found an opponent so formidable no amount of adjusting can help. Michael Malone is the best coach Spoelstra has seen this postseason, but you could probably install a phone sex operator as the coach of the Denver Nuggets and not see much of a difference, because Nikola Jokich is playing every game in a full lotus with his eyes closed and his wrists resting on his knees, pinching middle finger and thumb on both hands, levitating several feet off the ground and playing basketball with his mind’s extra sensory powers. He is in the midst of a heater the likes of which we haven’t seen in a decade, lumbering around the court oafishly but placing precise dimes in the hands of his teammates in the perfect spot, in rhythm, every play. Oh, and he never misses. He was built in a lab to dismantle the zone.

And yet, the Heat have the 2023 NBA Finals tied 1-1 after Game 2. They have stole homecourt advantage. They weren’t supposed make two NBA Finals and one Conference Finals in the last four years. They weren’t supposed to have this series, either. Perhaps they have one more impossible feat to pull off. If they do, the Finals MVP will likely go to Jimmy Butler, but we all will know who it actually belongs to.

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28 of September 2023