Heat coach Spoelstra talks title defense, Big Three, Riley and more
Erik Spoelstra says pain of losing in Finals served as a motivating factor for team
He says players understood the need to play out of position, and embraced change
It was tough replacing a HOFer, but he's embraced coaching in Riley's shadow
No NBA coach faced more pressure the past two seasons than Erik Spoelstra. Handed the keys to the league's next super team in the summer of 2010 when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami, Spoelstra guided the Heat to the Finals in 2011 only to see the team fall to the delight of pundits and fans everywhere. With a steady drumbeat of calls for him to be ousted and replaced by Heat president Pat Riley, Spoelstra won the NBA title everyone expected last June. As he prepares for his fifth season as Heat coach, the 41-year-old spoke to SI.com about how the past two seasons have changed the team and what's ahead for the defending champions.
SI.com: Given the pressure you and this team faced since the summer of 2010, what did winning a title feel like for you?
Erik Spoelstra: It was gratifying from the standpoint that all of us went through it together. You hear that a lot, but there was no question that during the course of two years, we were all uncomfortable at some point. It was, at times, tumultuous. It was, at times, rocky. But we were able to find a way to overcome all of that and accomplish something together. And when you find moments like that in sports, it truly is special because you realize how rare that is.
SI.com: What made the biggest difference from Year 1 with the Big Three to Year 2?
Spoelstra: There were a lot of events over the course of two years that steeled us, that forced us to develop a resolve and toughness. The 9-8 start [in Year 1], when it felt like the world was coming down on us after we all thought it would be easier than it actually was. We lost five straight games at home before the playoffs in 2011 and everybody was digging our grave. And then came the ultimate pain of losing in the Finals, which became one of the biggest motivating factors for every single one of us in that locker room. By the time we got to the 2011-12 season we had developed a resolve we needed. We were the only team that's been behind in three straight series to win an NBA title. [The Heat overcame a 2-1 series deficit in the Eastern Conference semis, a 3-2 deficit in the Eastern Conference finals and a 1-0 deficit in the NBA Finals.] We didn't panic in any of those series, but because of all of those other, tough experiences we were able to compartmentalize and focus on playing our best basketball, knowing that each series is a long series and there are a lot of different storylines.
SI.com: How did the first season with the Big Three change you?
Spoelstra: Failure and pain are incredible motivators but they are also powerful teachers. I went into that first offseason with a commitment to get better. The lockout was really a focused sabbatical for me. I studied other teams and other coaching philosophies. I didn't adopt another philosophy but what I found through that journey was that I needed to look at the team through a different lens, to be open and embrace the versatility of our roster. That's where we started to play position-less and to play faster than we were accustomed to playing.
SI.com: Did that approach flow from the talent on the roster or a shift in strategy?
Spoelstra: In talking to so many other coaches and trying to learn their systems, that got us to circle back to our team and realize we had a unique, unconventional roster. And to fully unlock the strengths of the roster we had to find a way to fully utilize the versatility that we had.
SI.com: Was there resistance to the idea of playing different positions?
Spoelstra: No. We all understood that there would be a process to it, but for us to play our best players, we were going to have to play guys out of their "conventional" positions. They understood that. This process started that first year we were together. We didn't do it as much as we did the second half of last season or in the playoffs, but we were building toward that and developing more confidence in it to where it wasn't so new and uncomfortable. They not only embraced it but they really enjoyed it.
SI.com: Last year you seemed to find success at getting LeBron James to play more in the low post. This year it appears Chris Bosh is embracing the idea of playing center. How have you been able to convince your players to accept roles they have been reluctant to accept in the past?
Spoelstra: We all developed a better trust in each other by going through some of those painful experiences. We don't want to restrict our players to a box or to a conventional position, but rather we want to think of them as typically skilled basketball players out on the court. Chris is a very intelligent player. Part of his strength is his ability to play multiple positions, which is unique with his length and his skill set. But I don't use the term center with Chris. I don't use the term power forward. He's out there in our starting five.
Philosophically, we do things differently than the way we have in the past, and yet we still are a power paint team. ... We still try to develop a game that is predicated on going inside out. We do that with our pace and our space and our post-ups. As for the pace of the game, hopefully we get some opportunities in transition, where we feel we're one of the more explosive teams. The spacing opens up some alleys to drive. And then in the post-up game, we still post arguably as much as some of the old Miami Heat teams, but we do it inverted, with our perimeter players rather than a conventional center.
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