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Erik Spoelstra Took the Heat As Far As They Could Go

Miami’s coach made all the right moves in the playoffs and Finals. Ultimately, he just didn’t have enough of them to make.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Erik Spoelstra ran out of adjustments in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. The Heat coach pressed all the right buttons in the playoffs to get his team within two wins of a title. But he couldn’t push them over the top. They just didn’t have as much talent as the Lakers. Their best chance of winning was if the opposing coach didn’t make the right moves to counter Spoelstra. That’s what happened in their two series against the Bucks and Celtics. But there wasn’t anything Miami could do once Frank Vogel started his best lineup.

Vogel finally downsized to match Spoelstra on Sunday, benching Dwight Howard, who started the first five games of the Finals, for Alex Caruso. The lineup change improved Los Angeles on both ends of the floor. It replaced its worst perimeter defender with one of its best, while adding another shooter and playmaker. There was no role for Howard in this series. He couldn’t guard Bam Adebayo, or all of the actions that he was involved with on the perimeter, and couldn’t make up for it on offense. The Lakers had a net rating of minus-13.5 with him in the Finals and plus-9.5 without him.

Their new starting lineup featured three 3-and-D wings—Caruso, Danny Green, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope—around their two superstars, LeBron James and Anthony Davis. There was nowhere for the Heat to attack. Their offense is based on moving the ball and probing until they find a weakness. But they were just running in circles against the new-look Lakers, taking bad shots and turning the ball over, which led to easy run-outs in transition and a 28-point deficit at the half.

The only adjustment that Spoelstra could make in Game 6 was re-inserting Kelly Olynyk back into the rotation. His ability to stretch the defense takes Davis out of the paint and creates more room for the Heat to attack the lane. The problem is that Olynyk couldn’t guard anyone on the Lakers, especially with Howard on the bench. Nor could Spoelstra use the zone that had been so effective against the Celtics because the Lakers had cracked it in Game 2.

That was the moment when the series was really over. Spoelstra had exhausted every possible alternative. All he had left were two moves, neither of which would work. Vogel had him in checkmate.

He made the moves that neither Brad Stevens nor Mike Budenholzer made in the previous two rounds. To be sure, Vogel had the benefit of having LeBron and Davis on his team. But the biggest problem for both coaches against the Heat was not a lack of talent—it was a lack of imagination.

The most important adjustment that Spoelstra made in the playoffs came before they even began. He benched Meyers Leonard for Jae Crowder, taking out his starting center and playing four perimeter players around Bam. It was the same adjustment that Vogel eventually made in the Finals when he swapped out Howard for Caruso.

The key to beating Miami was to be just as versatile on defense. That was something Milwaukee and Boston never even tried. Bud should have used Giannis Antetokounmpo like Vogel used Davis. He should have played Giannis at the 5 on offense and had him guard Jimmy Butler and Bam on defense rather than stick with an immobile center (Brook Lopez) and put the Defensive Player of the Year on Jae Crowder.

Stevens, like Bud, stuck with his traditional big man (Daniel Theis) to the very end. He should have benched Theis for Grant Williams, a better perimeter defender who could switch out on Miami’s guards when it ran two-man actions with Bam, rather than hanging back in the paint. The Celtics coach eventually adjusted in Game 6, fueling a massive second-half comeback by playing Williams at the 5, only to put Theis back in for a disastrous two-minute stretch in the fourth quarter when Bam totaled six points and an assist on four straight possessions.

Miami might still have beaten Milwaukee and Boston even if their coaches had made the right adjustments. We will never know. Spoelstra took advantage of coaches who couldn’t figure out what he was doing until it was too late. The good news for Stevens and Bud is that Spoelstra is proof that you can learn and improve from your mistakes in the playoffs.

Spoelstra was outmaneuvered by Rick Carlisle in the 2011 Finals. Dallas was down 2-1 when Carlisle inserted J.J. Barea into the starting lineup, taking advantage of the fact that Miami was starting Mike Bibby, an aging point guard who no longer had the offensive game to punish the 5-foot-10 Barea. Spoelsta didn’t replace Bibby with Mario Chalmers until Game 6, when the Heat were facing elimination. He was a game late and a dollar short. That’s how thin the margin for error is in the playoffs.

Spo was a different coach in 2012. He downsized around LeBron and Dwyane Wade when Chris Bosh was injured in their second-round series against Indiana, before inserting Bosh back in the starting lineup when they were down 1-0 against Oklahoma City in the Finals. Spoelstra got very little credit for shepherding the Heatles to their first NBA title, when a lot of coaches in his shoes would have stuck with their traditional big men and lost. This was three years before the Warriors took over. Going small was a revolutionary concept at the time.

The irony is that Vogel was coaching Indiana from 2012 to 2014, when it lost to Miami in three straight postseasons. Spoelstra put him in checkmate back then because he had the better players. It’s easier now to recognize his genius in 2020, when he led an underdog to the Finals, than when he won as the favorite in 2012 and 2013. He never got the credit he deserved until he showed that he could win without generational talent. But he’d probably rather have the talent and win. Coaches can do a lot in the playoffs. They just can’t do everything.