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Spoelstra blazes path to top of profession

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Perhaps no Filipino-American appeared in the spotlight more in 2011 than Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra.

In his third season at the helm, but first campaign with superstar forward LeBron James on the roster, Spoelstra traversed a media firestorm to guide the Heat on a stirring basketball odyssey that culminated in June with a finals appearance against the Dallas Mavericks.

While Spoelstra and the Heat came up short in the championships, losing to the Dirk Nowitzki-led Mavs four games to two, FilAm Star would like to acknowledge the achievement of the NBA’s only Filipino figurehead as deserving of this year’s top sports story.

No amount of advice from Heat general manager and mentor, Pat Riley, could have prepared Spoelstra for the grind of the 2010-11 season: beginning with the groundswell of animosity directed towards the franchise once it signed deals for James and forward Chris Bosh to join forces with guard Dwyane Wade.

Spoelstra was not only saddled with the burden of high expectations, as a result from James’ bold proclamation of multiple titles, but the young coach (whose father Jon served as an NBA executive for four different organizations) was also put behind the eight-ball in terms of his team’s early progress when Wade missed the entire preseason with a high ankle sprain and power forward Udonis Haslem went down three weeks into the regular season with torn ligaments in his left foot.

Lacking in both a true point guard and an offensive threat at center, the Heat struggled during the first month, especially at the end of games when it became confusing who was the “go-to” guy out on the floor. With Wade and James essentially playing the same position (both love to create off the dribble) there were evenings when it seemed neither star had figured things out, nor were they focused on taking a leading role.

After a blowout loss to the Mavericks in late November, which dropped their record to 9-8 and featured an accidental bumping of shoulders between James and his new coach (right after a timeout was called), things reached a boiling point with the Heat players, who called a closed-door meeting following the contest, where they reportedly vented their frustration over Spoelstra’s substitution pattern and play calling.

The mainstream media jumped all over the 40-year-old head coach, with rumblings of him being overmatched and panicking for fear of losing his job—many basketball talking heads called for his firing and in short-sighted fashion expected Riley to assume the role as his replacement.

When asked about Spoelstra’s performance up to that point, Wade did not hold back in his assessment.

“Right now, in my opinion, no one is doing a good job,” said Wade, who benefited his first two years from countless hours in the gym working on his shot with Spoelstra. “We’re 9-and-8. We’re all in this together. The players are not doing a good job. The coach is not doing a good job.”

But Spoelstra survived the ordeal and came out much better for the wear. In fact, the young head coach in his 16th year with the organization deadened any speculation that he wouldn’t finish the season by getting the team to buy into his defensive philosophy (trading some offensive leeway in return) and managing them to a 15-1 record during December.

As a testament to his calm and focused demeanor, in even the most adverse of scenarios, Spoelstra was named the NBA Coach of the Month for the first time in his career in part because the Heat set an NBA record with 10 consecutive road victories in one month.

“We’ve built up some toughness that you need at the beginning of the year on the road – when you’re in adverse situations and you feel like it’s us against the world,” Spoelstra said in a Dec. 30 article from the Miami Herald.

Aside from a few bumps in the road, like when the “Big 3” all suffered minor injuries in mid-January or during a mini-losing streak as March rolled around, Spoelstra did his usual due diligence and figured out the rotations for his lineup, thus allowing James to play more on the wing, that showed maturity and spoke volumes of his basketball aptitude.

“The thing about great players is that they’re great for a reason, they want to get to the next level,” Spoelstra said in the Herald. “They do want to be coached, they do want to be pushed, they do want discipline and structure and to be held accountable, and you can’t forget that or take it for granted. But how you get to that sometimes with each player is sometimes different.”

Spoelstra’s speech, phrasing and nuances, as well as his insistence on defensive principles through hard work for the most part are very Riley-influenced.

In the middle of April, the Heat entered the 2011 playoffs as the second seed and matched up in the first round against a young but talented, especially off the bench, Philadelphia 76ers team. The Heat won the series four games to one, but it was not in dominating fashion, as three out of their four wins against the Doug Collins-coached team were decided by less than nine points.

The Heat, which in November appeared it wouldn’t make anything except the list of the league’s most overrated team of all-time, was now thrust into the conference semi-finals and for a must-see hard-court battle versus their nemesis, the Boston Celtics.

On May Day, at the American Airlines Arena, the Heat hosted a Celts team led by their own trio of guard Ray Allen, forward Paul Pierce and center/power forward Kevin Garnett. But unlike the regular season when the team from Boston won three out of the four matchups, the Heat were firing on all cylinders for a 99-90 win to claim Game 1.

After their five-game disposal of an aging Celtics team, the circus traveled to Chicago, where Spoelstra looked to face his toughest challenge of the season with an Eastern Conference finals test against the Derrick Rose-dominated Bulls. After a Game 1 letdown, in which they got routed by over 20 points, the Heat got a huge boost three nights later when Spoelstra decided in the second quarter it was time to pull Jamaal Magloire out and insert his trusted warrior in Haslem, who had recently returned from his six-month hiatus.

Spoelstra said that something in Haslem’s eyes told him he was primed – the look of a guy ready to compete.

The adjustment paid off big for Spoelstra, as Haslem sparked the team on the court with his energy and hustle: enough so that the entire Heat lineup fed off it and ratcheted up their intensity level to even up the series and head back to South Beach, where they had yet to lose a home game in the post-season.

After two more decisive Heat victories, the teams flew up to the Windy City for what would be the series closeout game, an 83-80 win, thanks in large part to a phenomenal performance from James that included 28 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists.

With Spoelstra as its pilot, the Heat weathered the regular season storm through patience then relied on their incomparable talent to get them through the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Unfortunately talent alone would not be enough for the Heat to defeat their finals opponent, whose bench play and clutch shot-making proved to be the difference maker, as was the tactical maneuverings seen from Mavericks veteran coach Rick Carlisle, who threw a zone defense the way of Spoelstra and the Heat that frustrated Wade and James in their attempt to penetrate the lane, forcing them to rely on their perimeter game, which for the one nicknamed “King” turned out to be the worst possible strategy.

In three of their losses the Heat coughed up commanding leads as they reverted back to some of their destructive ways from earlier in the year when standing around, not moving without the ball, was the norm.

The defeat at the hands of the Mavericks was a tough pill to swallow for Spoelstra, and for the entire organization. But with a six-month layoff away from the sport to get a newfound perspective, Spoelstra, who in early August traveled back to the Philippines (his mother is a native of Laguna) for his third consecutive summer of basketball and fitness clinics, has picked up the pieces and is ready to redeem himself with an NBA title in this season’s abbreviated 66-game schedule.


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