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Erik Spoelstra’s defensive flexibility led Miami to the NBA Finals

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Each series, coach Erik Spoelstra has employed entirely different strategies to push the Miami Heat to win.

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat - Game Three Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

It was February 26.

The Miami Heat just lost an embarrassing game to the Minnesota Timberwolves at home. The loss was their 4th out of 5 games — losses to the Wolves, Cavaliers, Hawks, and Jazz.

The Heat were in a funk. Although for most of the season they’ve been good, this was a rough stretch. They were giving up way too many points and were not the defensive team that the Miami Heat expect.

Right before the NBA season was suspended, the Heat lost at home to the Charlotte Hornets. It was bad. A game they should have won, they just couldn’t get any stops down the stretch and Devonte Graham prevented the Heat from clinching a playoff birth that night.

Then the NBA suspended play. The Heat wouldn’t get together again for another 4 months.

That break in addition to being in the bubble has changed something for the Miami Heat. And now, entering their sixth NBA Finals in franchise history (5th for Spoelstra as a head coach), they have reinvented defensive flexibility.

It started with a lineup change. Meyers Leonard, who started 49 out of his 51 games and averaged 20 minutes per game — out of the rotation. The Heat went smaller — playing only Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk as bigs. Goran Dragic moved into a starting role and Kendrick Nunn got spot minutes — allowing for more time for Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala.

Erik Spoelstra made his roster and team capable of adapting to every type of offense they faced — and they didn’t shy away when others thought it wouldn’t work.

Here’s what it looked like:

ROUND 1 vs the INDIANA PACERS
Defensive Strategy: Switch it all

Spoelstra believed that there wasn’t any one player that could beat the Heat by themselves on the Indiana Pacers. So the Heat played straight up man-to-man defense but they virtually switched everything.

Sometimes Myles Turner would force a non-switch because of his height, but Miami gave up very very easy points to the Pacers. In fact, they held the Pacers to a 105 offensive rating — not great. What this did was push the Pacers to hunt their isolation mismatches. And boy did they — they would screen until they got Malcolm Brogdon or Victor Oladipo or T.J. Warren onto one of their preferred matchups — Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro or Goran Dragic.

And that strategy took the Pacers out of who they were — a team oriented approach turned into iso ball and that’s not who they are. Sure, it worked from time to time, but when push came to shove, it stalled what they needed to do. And in Game 4, the Heat had them figured out so much they held them to 87 points.

This was very similar to how the Heat played defense all year — and they used the right people to create their advantages. Their constant switching led to only a 13.7% offensive rebounding rating for the Pacers while Miami was at 23.1%. Obviously it worked, and Miami swept the Pacers.

ROUND 2 vs the MILWAUKEE BUCKS
Defensive Strategy: Build the wall

The Bucks presented a different problem — they have the most dynamic player in the game, Giannis Antetokounmpo. But Spoelstra learned from what the Toronto Raptors did the previous year in “building a wall” against Giannis.

Every time the MVP would push the ball up the floor, all 5 set of eyes were on him and slanted to the paint. Giannis rarely had a moment to get to the rim. If he did, it was off a spin or euro move and he had a couple of those. The Heat bet on the other players beating them. And beyond Khris Middleton, no one made a difference.

Yes, Brook Lopez scored and had an impact. But that’s the price you pay when you build the wall. The Heat did a mixture of switching and dropping on screens, but mostly everything was geared around making Giannis have a hard time. They made their hands active on his drives and forced him to beat them from the free throw line when he did get to the paint.

There’s very few teams the Heat would do this type of defense against and the Bucks didn’t beat the Heat with what the defense gave them — namely, Giannis didn’t have enough teammates step up and score when everyone was focused on him,

ROUND 3 vs the BOSTON CELTICS
Defensive Strategy: 2-3 Zone

It’s a rarity in the NBA to play a zone defense. With the defensive three second rule, it takes a lot of attention to detail and mobility to play a zone. But when the Heat got matched up with the Celtics, this was the strategy that Spo knew would pay dividends.

They didn’t play it all the time, but they went considerable stretches making the Celtics play the zone. Brad Stevens worked tirelessly to figure it out...and he did at times. Daniel Theis setting high ball screens for Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum getting into the paint. But collectively, the zone took the Celtics out of their greatest advantage...those one on one and specifically the Theis-Walker pick and roll adjustment. Derrick Jones Jr. was a staple of the top of the Heat zone all season, but not in this series. Andre Iguodala and Jimmy Butler at the top with either Herro, Dragic or Robinson on the other sides with Bam in the middle. The Heat were effective over the long haul.

Even though it was really effective in Game 2, the Heat went back and forth with it not to get Boston too comfortable playing against it. And that led to greater success throughout the series. The constant look change forced the Celtics to figure out what to do on the fly. And often the Heat were making the Celtics settle for contested shots — which is exactly what they wanted.

To add on to the coaching adjustments, Spo removed Kendrick Nunn, Kelly Olynyk and Derrick Jones Jr. from the rotation and sprinkled in a few Solomon Hill minutes. He isn’t afraid to do anything to make the right change for the game or series.

Erik Spoelstra has now coached this team to the NBA Finals. Some say he only made it in the past because of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. But now, in probably his finest coaching moment, Spo has shown the casual NBA fan what type of coach he is.

The people in the NBA...they knew. There is mad respect for this man. But this team, right now, in this moment, is a product of supreme coaching flexibility that will once again be put to the test against LeBron James and the L.A. Lakers.