MIAMI — To survive the postseason, sure, your stars need to be spectacular more often than not. But your other core contributors? Well, they can't be spectators.
Everyone needs to have a game. And when tales of the Miami Heat's recent run are told and retold, the Mike Miller game, the Shane Battier game and the Mario Chalmers game will be recognizable parts of these champions' folklore.
Erik Spoelstra had a game Saturday.
The Heat coach was tested in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Tested by his team's lethargy.
"It was a horrible first quarter," Spoelstra said.
"We hate the way we played to start the game," LeBron James said.
Tested by the Indiana Pacers' paint prowess, as Indiana's starting frontcourt outscored the entire Heat squad, 17-4, early.
"We tried to make an emphasis of getting the ball inside early," Pacers forward David West said. "I thought we did a good job of that."
Tested by foul trouble, with that and ongoing ineffectiveness limiting Chris Bosh to just 23 minutes.
Tested, but not bested. Not by the circumstances. Not by Frank Vogel. And not by the Pacers, with Miami's 99-87 win giving it a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
And so, while his players had to perform—and they did on both ends, shooting 60 percent in the final three quarters while disrupting defensively—they were aided by his strategic tinkering.
This is the sort of night that coaches crave, when every string pulled sounds like a Stradivarius.
Spoelstra turned to two players—Norris Cole and Rashard Lewis—who were somewhat unpopular with the fans this season; while doubling down on a defensive strategy that, at times, hasn't been popular with his players; and while taking advantage of a Vogel wrinkle that won't be popularized throughout the NBA.
Start with Cole, who didn't start, but played 33 minutes, raising his two-game total to 60, or 22 more than starting point guard Mario Chalmers.
"Boy, we needed those minutes," Spoelstra said of Cole's performance.
Cole irritated Lance Stephenson and other Pacers on the perimeter. You should know he can do that, and if you didn't already, Tuesday's work in Indiana should have shown you. But Saturday, he also ran the offense expertly, speeding around screens to put the rest of the set in motion, before making the right read, with a pass or a drive.
"When I'm out there, I'm in a focused state of mind," Cole said.
That was certainly the case Saturday.
And so, just like in Game 2, Spoelstra left him out there for the entire fourth quarter, to finish a plus-15 outing.
Lewis played only the final 43 seconds of that quarter, after the game was decided. But he, somewhat surprisingly, did plenty to decide it. In 17 minutes and 26 seconds, he produced little of note statistically—no points, no assists, no rebounds and one block when Roy Hibbert, in Lewis' words, "pretty much gave it right to me." Still, he gave Spoelstra what he hasn't gotten from anyone else in roughly three years: consistent resistance against the stockier West.
"We had to go deeper into our bench in the second quarter, and that's what this series may require," Spoelstra said, referring to the foul trouble for Bosh and Udonis Haslem. "It may require us to play 10 guys, 11 guys. And play fresh bodies out there. It's a real credit to Rashard for keeping himself ready. And you just never know when your number is going to be called in the playoffs. Our team is about moments, and having those moments, and being able to produce for our team regardless of the circumstance or the situation."
In Lewis' 17-plus moments, the Heat were a plus-21.
Lewis, once a premier scorer, has bought into the Heat's team philosophy over the past two years, to the point where he said Saturday, "whatever it takes to win; that's just setting picks all [bleeping] game, that's what I'm going to do." Even in his prime, he was never known for his physical defense, but he was effective Saturday in bodying West, denying the ball at the elbow, nudging him out of his sweet spot on the pick-and-pop.
"Just disrupt him a little bit," Lewis said.
In doing so, he rewarded Spoelstra for dusting him off.
"Those guys off the bench, man, they did it for us tonight," James said. "They got the game ball for sure."
They were part of the reason that the ball stopped going through the basket for the Pacers. But Spoelstra's instructions certainly helped. They had their origins in training camp, where Spoelstra always reserves some sessions for full-court pressure, just so it doesn't shock his players' systems if he calls upon it at some later date. The Heat hardly used it during the regular season, but used it well in a couple of concentrated spots Saturday, with Spoelstra doing it as much to awaken his team, a team he now knows so well, as to rattle the opponent.
"That's a credit to how they dictated the game," Spoelstra said of his maneuver. "We can't play this series on their terms. And so that was just to get our energy going. To force us to make multiple efforts, and it activated our guys for this game."
It didn't work every time, notably on a George Hill end-to-end conversion. But it clearly wore on the Pacers, as it was complemented with increased Heat activity in the halfcourt as well. During a single three-minute-and-20-second stretch of the second quarter, the Pacers—still short a true point guard—committed six turnovers in the Heat's end. And, then, after Miami took a 59-58 lead, came a possession with the Heat at their absolute defensive best, covering for each other all over the paint and perimeter until the Pacers ran out of time on the shot clock.
That was the sort of frenzied defense that the Heat didn't feel like playing for much of the season. Spoelstra insisted they stick with it, scaling back only somewhat to preserve their bodies and legs, but never abandoning the principles completely. He wanted his players to be conditioned, mentally and physically, to pounce on occasions like this.
They did on Saturday, for the final three quarters, overwhelming the Pacers with their speed.
Still, though, the Heat needed to finish with their offense, and they did that in part due to Spoelstra sticking with something that hasn't always worked against Indiana. James said he wasn't surprised that Vogel and the Pacers kept putting the much larger West on Ray Allen down the stretch, because "two years straight, he's guarded Ray when we went small."
But Allen has continued to be surprised.
After all, Allen isn't the sort of player you experiment against, with an unconventional matchup. Few in NBA history have made as many critical fourth quarter shots.
"He's earned that reputation through years of doing it," Spoelstra said. "Years upon years upon years."
Yet Indiana has generally survived—and sometimes even thrived—with that approach, and there was even concern prior to this series about his general ineffectiveness against the Heat's chief rivals. Allen has always believed that he had the advantage, and Spoelstra has allowed him to prove it.
"Every time I see a big come out there, I salivate," he said. "Because if he's going to guard me out there, I'm always going to try to make him think that I'm doing something that I may not be doing, to confuse him, trick him, make him think. If you see me one moment there, I'm going to be somewhere else the next minute you turn around."
So, for every minute West was matched up, Allen had one thing in mind:
"Just run him," Allen said. "Just run him. If I don't get the ball, just run him. If he's going to come out there guarding me, run him off the screens, tire him out. Because I've been doing it my whole career, so I'm very tuned up for it. And he may be up for the challenge as well, but it's going to take a little bit away from what he's doing on the offensive side."
Allen scored 13 points in the fourth quarter. West scored two.
And while West attributed most of Allen's success to transition breakouts, insisting "he got loose one time" in the halfcourt, it's now clearly a tactic Vogel will need to reconsider.
"It's extremely difficult to guard, especially when you're playing big against him," Vogel said. "But we haven't been hurt quite like that."
Spoelstra didn't care to take too much credit.
Was it important to see the smallball closing lineup succeed?
"Look, because it worked, yeah, it's important," he said. "But if it didn't, maybe we need to go to something else. When you're in a very competitive series like this, that's our mindset. Whatever it takes. We were able to take advantage of it tonight in the fourth. That might not be the case next game."
But Saturday, the Heat did.
Saturday, Spoelstra had a game.
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