I posed the following question to the staff for our latest roundtable.
How much of an advantage is Erik Spoelstra for the Miami Heat? (and what kinds of strategies do you expect him to use)
In short, it’s huge. While Mazzulla finally seemed to learn some lessons late in Sixers series (Joe was great with the simple stuff in both games), it’s a lot to ask of any rookie coach to go head-to-head with the league’s best. I fully expect Spo to spread the Celtics out and empower his entire roster to make quick reads and take available shots. While the Heat don’t have the depth the Celtics have, they do have some pesky players and a bunch of guys who can dribble, pass, and shoot. If there’s anything we know about this Celtics team, it’s that they have struggled against teams who employ an equal opportunity offense so that the C’s “vaunted” defense can’t lock in on a few actions. On the defensive side of the ball, I would expect to see a variety of zones and schemes to keep the Celtics from playing Mazzulla ball. If you can make the Celtics think instead of play, you have a chance.
The Heat have a talent deficit in this series, but Spolstra can most certainly still find a way to manipulate the game in Miami’s favor. He’ll throw in some zones, he’ll mix up defensive coverages, and, most importantly, he’ll always make sure his team is ready for the moment. Sometimes, the Celtics can trip over themselves and stall out offensively towards the end of games — the Heat are NOT the team to do that against, because they’ll shade over to the ball and completely dismantle your isolations at the end of the shot clock. Mazzulla and the Celtics will have to continue to play with pace to keep the advantage in this series.
Having Spoelstra at the helm is the only reason I give the Heat a puncher’s chance in this series. The Heat are smaller and slower than the Celtics, and they lack the depth of individual shot creators without Herro in the lineup. However, they are tough and well-coached. I think Spoelstra will know he’s at a talent disadvantage and will try to bait Mazzulla into becoming over-reliant on the 3 ball by showing frequent zone looks and loading up on Tatum and Brown dribble penetration to force them to kick it out rather than parade to the rim. To win the series, Spoelstra likely knows he needs to force the Celtics into one nightmare shooting game and then steal a second game somewhere along the way in a close and late situation. He’s not going to beat the Celtics 4 out of 7 without finagling a couple victories on the margins.
The fact that Erik Spoelstra has never won Coach of the Year is, quite frankly, absurd. Real ones know. He’s arguably the best coach in the NBA, and at absolute worst, one of the 3-5 best. He’s experienced, savvy and knows the Celtics better than just about anyone. He has a knack for giving the Heat exactly what they need at the right moment. I expect Miami to swarm Jaylen Brown when he beats his man off the dribble, get physical with Jayson Tatum and dare Marcus Smart to beat them from 3. I think Spoelstra will ride the hot hand when it comes to role players and potentially go small to try to beat the Celtics at their own game (something like a Kyle Lowry, Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo lineup). Having said all that, I don’t think anything he does will be too much for the Celtics to overcome. Boston is too good.
Out of the remaining coaches in the playoffs, Spoelstra is by far the best. Arguably the best coach in the league, there’s a reason why the Miami Heat are still in the mix and have gotten this far this season after dealing with ups and downs and navigating injuries. In terms of strategies and schemes, I think Miami will turn to “Ol’ Reliable”: zone defense. While Boston has gotten better at tackling zone defense (Robert Williams helps), it puts more pressure on the offense to execute and keep pushing the pace. A grind-it-out game will not be the easiest for the Celtics to play, and I fully expect frequent blitzes and throwing two bodies at Tatum and Brown throughout the series, so those guys need to be ready to make some fast reads. Familiarity between the two teams means it’s going to be a tough series, so it’ll be interesting to see what Mazzulla brings to the situation as a greenhorn going up against one of the smartest coaches in the NBA
Eric Spoelstra is one of the only true coaches in the NBA that I fear. He has endless amounts of tricks up his sleeve and his ability to get the most out of talent-deficient rosters is unparalleled in the modern NBA. He even has Duncan Robinson back to being a competent role player! Duncan Robinson! He has gone up against hte Brad Stevens-era Celtics enough to know our every move and I’m not sure Mazzulla has a ton of secret adjustments to make against this Heat team. The good news though, is that this is the weakest team Spo has ever had going into an ECF and it will take his finest performance to get them over the finish line.
I honestly believe that Miami don’t get to the ECF this season without Spoelstra’s coaching. He gives the Heat an edge with his creativity and leadership. However, Joe Mazzulla is proving himself to be a very capable coach in his own right. Given Boston’s talent advantage, and the number of leaders in their rotation, I don’t envision coaching costing the Celtics the series, but I do think Spoelstra’s presence is the reason it will go 6 or 7 games.
I think it’s fair to say that with Erik Spoelstra, we’re talking about one of the all-time great NBA head coaches. The Miami Heat have gone through a quietly significant amount of turnover through his tenure, transitioning through essentially three different eras of franchise history, but have nonetheless remained a consistently difficult opponent. This is Miami’s third conference finals in four years, and Spoelstra is a major part of that track record.
Joe Mazzulla has performed admirably in his unexpected rookie season as an NBA head coach, but he’s had growing pains throughout the year, including a few notable blunders in the second round against Philadelphia. Looking forward, it would not be fair to write off one of the youngest head coaches in the league, especially given that he didn’t get a full offseason to prepare for the job. We’re talking about right now, though, and at the present moment, Spoelstra gives the Heat a substantial coaching advantage in this series.