CHICAGO, IL - MAY 18: Head coach Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat reacts as LeBron James #6 look on in the background against the Chicago Bulls in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2011 NBA Playoffs on May 18, 2011 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Erik Spoelstra made some risky decisions in the Miami Heat's Game 2 win over the Chicago Bulls. If not for LeBron James, would we give the coach any credit at all, or would we be running him out of town?
When TNT's broadcast did its shot on Miami Heat big men Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Erick Dampier -- each was wearing a suit, not sweats -- seven minutes into Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was already in trouble. To that point, the Chicago Bulls had nine offensive rebounds. The Heat had five defensive rebounds. That's exactly the sort of deficit that killed Miami in Game 1, where Chicago won more than 40 percent of their offensive rebound opportunities.
By keeping Ilgauskas and Dampier in street clothes, Spoelstra opened himself up to pre-game ridicule and a world of hurt had Game 1 followed the Game 2 script. When the cameras showed Z and Damp, that's exactly how Game 2 was going, with Miami completely unable to keep Joakim Noah and the Bulls off the offensive glass. Doom for Spoelstra was crawling across the screen -- the shot of the coach himself, with Spoelstra in a couch, face concerned as always -- and a spate of column calling for his head couldn't have been held off beyond Thursday.
Then Spoelstra simply executed his plan by putting in Udonis Haslem, the brawny roleplayer who was crucial in defending Dirk Nowitzki in the Heat's 2006 NBA Finals run. The offensive boards dried up for Chicago immediately. The Bulls didn't register another offensive rebound in the first quarter. Haslem stayed in for the first seven-plus minutes of the second quarter, too; Chicago didn't get a single offensive rebound with Haslem on the floor in the second quarter, either. The Bulls got three in the last four-plus minutes of the half with Haslem on the bench.
In the end, the Bulls still got way too many offensive rebounds: 17, or 32 percent of all opportunities. Again, Chicago had a chance to win despite being outshot from the field. Spoelstra understood that Haslem was the answer on the glass -- not Ilgauskas or Dampier, the inactives that drew pre-game catcalls and in-game second-guessing. But Haslem can only play so many minutes after being injured all season and playing so little in the playoffs, and his defense really isn't up to speed just yet; the Bulls scored pretty easily in Haslem's minutes, especially compared to when Joel Anthony (a good defender but atrocious defensive rebounder) was on the floor.
So in the end, Spoelstra needed another bail-out. He needed LeBron James to save the day.
In the end, that's what all coaches need: someone to make them look smart. Spoelstra rolled the dice by replacing Haslem with Anthony in the back half of the fourth quarter, with the game knotted up in a dogfight. Chicago had incredible trouble scoring late, and a few putbacks could have saved the Bulls -- to allow Anthony in the team, opening up that possibility, was a real risk.
But the Miami defense held, and LeBron took over. Spoelstra took a 20-second timeout with 4-1/2 minutes left; Miami had gone scoreless in five game minutes, and the game was tied at 73. Right out of the timeout, LeBron nailed a three-pointer. He ended up scoring nine in the last 4-1/2 minutes as Miami outscored Chicago 12-2 down the stretch.
Consider the roller coaster for Spoelstra's reputation in this single game: a fool for benching Z and Dampier, a genius for using Haslem so much, a potential fool for pulling Haslem with five minutes left, a genius for letting the best player in the world play his game. No single turn of the tracks is fair, but we all think it. We all -- subconsciously or out-loud (or Twitter) -- question the decisions when they violate our sense of what should happen.
Coaches deal with this about 110 times a year. In every game, decisions go right or wrong or upside-down, and coaches take the heat. That's the job description, and there's no question that many of the questions are fair. But it's worth keeping in mind how many factors going into that binary result at the end. Is Spoelstra a genius for playing Haslem? Well, Haslem was a -11 in the game. Did he play with fire by benching Haslem in crunch time? Well, Haslem was out-of-control in the run-up to the substitution.
Just understand that if LeBron doesn't go nuts down the stretch, and the Bulls pull out a win? Spoelstra's receiving a media beating for the next three days. For all the level of detail these coaches pour into their gameplans and playbooks, for all the risk assessment they do in filling out the active roster, it usually comes down to whether their star players have it. LeBron had it, and Spoelstra looks like a champ today. Derrick Rose had it all season, and Tom Thibodeau looked like even more of a genius than he is. In the end, this is a players' league -- not in the way that's usually meant, but on the court, with the game on the line. Stars win, and it's the job of coaches to put their star in positions to win.
Spoelstra succeeded in that in Game 2.