Ever since the Miami Heat pulled off the free agency coup in 2010 to acquire Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh, Erik Spoelstra would find himself in a no-win situation regardless of the results. If the Heat won championships, critics would say that any coach could win with such talent. If Miami failed, those same people would say, "How can Spoelstra come up short with all that talent?"
Although Spoelstra made some mistakes in the 2011 NBA Finals - like keeping Mike Bibby in the starting spot until Game 6 - he also made some wise tactical moves during those playoffs and rightfully earned a contract extension before the season began. But among the eight coaches in the second round, Spoelstra was the only one who did not receive a single vote in the Coach of the Year selection (yes, even Mike Brown and Vinny Del Negro received votes over Spoelstra). Spoelstra went up against Frank Vogel, who finished third in Coach of the Year voting, in the second round of the playoffs. And the longtime Heat employee thoroughly out-dueled Vogel as the Heat won three straight games against the Pacers to take the series.
Before Game 4 of the Heat's second-round series last year, Pat Riley motivated Heat players. It was a critical game, as the Heat won in overtime to take a 3-1 series lead and prevented the Celtics from tying up the series at two games apiece. Indiana had a chance to take that commanding lead with a home win, but allowed Miami to regain home-court advantage. Vogel made numerous errors in that game - he let Roy Hibbert and David West sit on the bench far too long in the fourth quarter and put in George Hill when Darren Collison made some shots to cut the Heat lead to two a couple times.
But Spoelstra also made a couple of adjustments to make James and Wade play more effectively. He had the Heat bigs - whether it was Joel Anthony, Ronny Turiaf or Udonis Haslem - set screens for Wade or James well above the 3-point line to give him momentum heading to the basket. This move worked well in the last three games of this series in giving the Heat good opportunities in transition. Game 6 didn't feature any typical fast-break opportunities that led to Wade-to-James alley-oops, but did have Wade and James getting into the lane to score during semi-transition opportunities. In a somewhat surprising move, Vogel never went to a zone defense to confound James and Wade. So much for the Pacers wanting to be like the Dallas Mavericks.
On defense, Spoelstra made the unconventional move of putting Shane Battier on David West to preserve James' energy. Spoelstra also had the 6-foot-9 Anthony front Hibbert. West played well in Game 6, but struggled against the wiry small forward in Games 4 and 5. And after Hibbert managed to take 16 shot attempts in Game 3, the Georgetown center didn't take more than 10 shot attempts in each of the final three games in part because Anthony fronted him, preventing entry passes from coming in.
Of course, the Pacers also failed to consistently exploit their advantage in the frontcourt and instead tried to beat Miami from the perimeter. Paul George took three more shots than Hibbert through final three games of this series. With all due respect to Charles Barkley - who suggested that the Fresno State product might be better than Chris Bosh - George is a role player. He shouldn't take more shot attempts than Hibbert, who had a distinct advantage inside. I don't know whether Vogel emphasized to his team to win from the inside, but the message never completely went through.
Spoelstra and the rest of his coaching staff may never get the respect they deserve. But through the final three games of this series, Spoelstra came up with some nice stratagems that Vogel never found answers for. After the series, James said that the Heat coach made some "unbelievable adjustments" to allow for the Heat's two superstars to play so well. He was absolutely right.