The Miami Heat took a convincing 3-1 lead in their best of seven series with the Boston Celtics. They did so by beating Boston on their beloved parquet floor, an achievement in and of itself, but as I’ve mentioned before, the warning signs were in plain sight.
When the ‘Big Three’ of the Heat combined beautifully on the game-clinching play, Pat Riley’s vision has never been more palpable. When LeBron James and Dwayne Wade worked in tandem — displaying all the synergy they’ve acquired –- to exploit mismatches and induce hitherto unseen cracks in Boston’s excellent pick-and-roll defense scheme, the blog world was in ecstasy. That’s what they’re supposed to do. It is their moral obligation to explore the endless potential of their partnership.
But when the Heat inevitably win this series, it will not be solely due to the dynamic duo. It will be a myriad of factors. Boston’s age – and I’m beating the same drum here – has been showing all series long. Rajon Rondo isn’t the Rajon Rondo that terrified the Heat in the regular season (and how could he be, dislocated left elbow and all). And of course, every rational Celtics fan’s favourite lament: Danny Ainge screwed up, big time.
Those are all valid points, but everyone seems to be forgetting a core ingredient in Miami’s post-season success: Coach Spoelstra. Erik Spoelstra deserves a lot of credit here. Here is a man, who, throughout the course of the season, was a) publicly maligned by the nation’s writers whenever the Heat suffered inexplicable losing streaks, b) had his credentials incessantly scrutinized to a fault, c) whose job security was always in question no matter the on-court results, d) whose substitution patterns was called out by his own players, and e) endured arguably the most debated player-coach ‘shoulder-check’ in sports history.
(Listing these out and refraining from adding 14523 more points made me realize how ridiculous the media coverage on the Heat really is. And yet, I’m falling right in line with them. I’d be damned if there really is a lockout.)
What I’m trying to get here is that Spoelstra deserves more credit than he’s been given. Many a time, he’s the media’s easy scapegoat, and his level-headedness and unwavering optimism in the face of relentless critique has often fallen by the wayside. He could have folded, compromised his principles and gave in the pressure, but he didn’t. He could have called out LeBron and Chris Bosh for questioning his superiority (and thereby straining their relationship), but he didn’t. He could have chosen the easy way out, handing over the reins to Pat when they were a paltry 9-8, but he didn’t. He has been a consummate professional, abiding by his ‘defense-first’ rhetoric and never once succumbing to the media. And now, it is paying dividends in the Heat’s playoff run.
The Heat are blossoming right before our eyes: The stingy defense that characterized the Boston Celtics have become a staple in Miami’s success (although they differ in fundamental methodology). The offense that was once discombobulated and uneven is now the perfect amalgamation of the Big Three’s talents. Chris Bosh is playing superb defense; Joel Anthony’s all-court hustle is bleeding into now-trademark Heat ‘skirmishes’; and LeBron has embraced the off-ball game and is fully utilizing his otherworldly frame as a monster screener.
With so much going for them right now, Miami seems to be prime favourites for the Larry O’Brien trophy. And while the players deserve credit for sticking to the game plan and executing beautifully, Coach Spoelstra has emerged as an excellent tactician, orchestrating the Heat symphony with great poise and maturity. They say Rajon Rondo is “the straw that stirs the drink” for the Celtics. I say Erik Spoelstra is the quintessential “glue guy”, melding the edgy new age of analytics with solid, fundamental coaching principles.
Before this post digressed into an outlet for my unsolicited basketball man-crush on Erik Spoelstra, I actually meant to write a sensible breakdown of Game 4’s key plays. So without further ado, here are my convoluted, irrational thoughts on Miami’s victory.
Bullets From The Breakdown:
D-Wade’s Hop-Step Dribble –
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Different players have different styles. Likewise, each individual has their own brand of slashing that is unique to themselves. Paul Pierce has ‘herky-jerky’ hesitation dribble. Derrick Rose ‘bounces’ towards the rim. Russell Westbrook just explodes. Dwayne Wade likes to employ a little hop-step dribble before rising for the layup.
- He is often twisting and turning past defenders and changing directions multiple times so that little mini dribble helps Wade maintain a little balance before he goes up for the layup. Wade is arguably the best in the league at using this hop-step which is as much a stylistic preference as it is a way to throw off defenders’ timings.
- Instead of the usual gather and one-two step routine, the hop-step presents defenders with a few more complications. For one, it forces the defender to be extra cautious as Wade can choose to either explode immediately after the hop-step, or he can give a little up-fake to bait a defender into contesting. It’s a nifty little move, and Wade is its best exponent.
Joel Anthony’s Improved Finishing –
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- Tom Haberstroh recently explored Joel Anthony’s dedicated effort to improve his offensive game –- catching, turning and finishing strong. Those efforts appear to have come to fruition in this series as he has displayed uncommon efficiency in finishing from close range and off offensive boards. None was more impressive than when he found himself open at the rim (which is a very common occurrence), caught LeBron’s interior pass confidently and rose to finish over Jermaine O’Neal.
- As O’Neal approached from his left, he shielded the ball, absorbed contact and finished with his strong hand away from the contest. It was basic fundamental finishing, something he could not have done early in the season.
Good ‘D’, Better ‘O’ –
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- Pierce receives the ball at the right corner with the shot clock winding down. He creates space with his ‘rocker’ step, but LeBron is right in his mug as he launches a 21-foot fadeaway that hits nothing but net.
- The basketball cliché is best epitomized in this sequence, as LeBron played absolutely perfect chest-to-chest defense knowing that Pierce had no time to drive and get a shot off.
D-Wade Overhelping, Again –
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- Anyone remember this game winner? Similar scenario pans out here.
- Wade overhelps on a Pierce drive when the lane is already protected by both Bosh and Chalmers. Yet again, he absent-mindedly leaves his man open in the corner and Delonte West makes him pay. Again. You’d think Wade -– after admitting his mistake to the media no less – would have learnt his lesson by now, but apparently bad habits die hard.
LeBron James, Clutch Extraordinaire –
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“The rumors of my demise (in the clutch) have been greatly exaggerated.” – LeBron James
- Okay, LeBron may not have actually said that, but he had every right to bark back at those (read: everyone) who questioned his shot making in pressure situations after making what might have been his biggest shot of the entire season.
- Fresh off a Ray Allen dagger, LeBron –- right in front of Boston’s bench, mind you -– answered right back with one of his own. Catching the rock on the right wing and with little time or space to work with, LeBron did his best Paul Pierce impression as he rocked Pierce back before pulling up for three. Time stood still for a moment as players, coaches and fans trailed the shot’s high arc, and then hearts ruptured and lungs collapsed. Turning point. Crowd silenced. LeBron freaking James.
- On a side note: Glen ‘Big Baby’ Davis has been subpar the entire series. He admitted to being lost on court and spoke of “finding Glen” before he could contribute on court. Well, I think Glen Davis “found” himself as he screamed and yelled frantically (as his limbs flailed in directions and speeds unbeknownst to man), trying to throw LeBron of his shot. He would make a great cheerleader.