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Youthful Spoelstra now a veteran

On Sports


He is no longer the youngest head coach in the NBA.

At 42, he is in his fifth season as Miami’s head coach and in his 18th year with the Heat coaching staff in some capacity.

Dare we call Erik Spoelstra a veteran?

“That’s pretty scary,” laughs the former Jesuit High and University of Portland point guard, whose Heat visit the Rose Garden for a game tonight against the Trail Blazers. “It feels strange.

“I remember a few years back, Coach (Pat) Riley telling me, ‘Just wait. ... 25, 30 years of your career are going to go by and you’re going to think it’s happened in a snap of your finger.’ I think that’s happening.”

Spoelstra’s annual return to Portland with the Heat will be a chance to reconnect with his family, including parents Jon and Elisa and sister Monica Metz.

It’s no pleasure trip, though. Portland is the second stop on a six-game road trip for Miami that Spoelstra considers crucial in the defending NBA champions’ quest for a second straight title.

“We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but the trip is the challenge this team needs right now,” he says. “We have not played to our potential on the road so far. We’re going to face opponents that play extremely well at home.”

The Heat have fashioned a 23-10 record — the best mark in the Eastern Conference. They’ve gotten the best shot from every opponent. That’s life when you win it all.

“That’s what we expected coming into the season — that the competition would get better, and they have,” Spoelstra says. “After you win it, trying to come back do it again, it’s a tough road. It’s been every bit of what we expected. We’re getting tough games from everybody. But if we approach it the way we should, it will help us when it matters.”

Spoelstra says Miami’s motivation is “different” than it was last year.

“Last year, there was desperation coming off the 2011 finals, having lost (4-2) to Dallas,” he says. “Our guys knew it was pretty much put up or shut up. And that’s a phenomenal way to live in pro sports. There is risk to it, but the reward is incredible. When you get everybody buying in, knowing there’s no turning back, it’s a powerful thing.

“It’s hard to recreate that desperation. This year, our motivation is legacy.”

As in, win championships back to back. Become a dynasty. Become one of the greatest teams of all-time.

Is there more pressure on the Heat after winning a title, or did that relieve the burden a little?

“It’s hard to win a championship regardless,” he says. “Last year, we said it was the hardest thing each of us would have to do, individually and professionally. This year, we’re saying the same thing.

“I haven’t used the word ‘repeat’ with our players. We don’t own a championship for this year. We’re fighting for a new one just like everybody else.”

Nobody is fighting harder than LeBron James, the reigning most valuable player who — though it hardly seems possible — has taken his talents to even greater heights this season.

James entered Wednesday’s play ranked fifth in the NBA in scoring (26.4) and tied for 11th in assists (6.8) while leading the Heat in field-goal shooting (.543), rebounds (8.3) and steals (1.5). He was shooting .417 from 3-point range and leading the league in efficiency rating while playing the fifth-most minutes (38.5).

What’s more, James has scored at least 20 points in all 33 games this season and has a string of 54 overall, including last year’s playoff run. He scored at least 25 in eight straight games.

“That’s what makes it special,” Spoelstra says. “He doesn’t rest on his accomplishments. He continues to raise the bar and try to improve and grow. That’s why he is the best player in the game right now.”

James is 28. Is it conceivable he can become an even better, more all-around player in the future?

“We don’t know what his ceiling is,” Spoelstra says. “With that type of God-given athletic ability, the mind and competitive spirit he has and then the hunger to always try to improve, what you get is the best player in the world.”

Miami’s two major offseason acquisitions were veteran free agents Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. Allen, 37, who turned down a chance to remain with Boston to sign with the Heat, is averaging 11.3 points in a sixth-man role, shooting .477 from the field and .452 from the 3-point line.

“It’s been a fairly seamless transition,” Spoelstra says. “Ray has made it look a lot easier than it is.

“I mean, he’s a career starter, a (future) Hall-of-Famer. He is coming from another championship organization to a totally new role for us, coming off the bench and getting 12 less minutes a game. ... But he still plays a major role in the fourth quarters. He has already hit a lot of big-time shots for us. That speaks to his professionalism and maturity.

“He has inflicted enough pain on us over the years. It’s nice to get him on our side.”

Lewis, meanwhile, has played almost no role for the Heat thus far. The 33-year-old small forward’s numbers are solid — 5.4 points, .493 shooting, .474 from 3-point range — but he has had a permanent seat on the bench since Dec. 20. And he’s not hurt.

“Right now, we’re relatively healthy, we’re the same team we had last year, and we added (Allen),” Spoelstra explains. “There aren’t a lot of minutes available.

“But we got Rashard for a reason. Last year, we went limping into the finals, had a lot of guys not nearly 100 percent. We took the educated risk to try to bolster our roster with a lot of depth knowing guys have to sacrifice.

“And Rashard has been great in that regard. He knew what he was getting into. At some point, he will still have a big role with us.”

Is it possible the Heat will wind up as a better team this season a year ago?

“Yeah,” Spoelstra says. “We’d better be. What we did last year most likely won’t be good enough this year.

“We’ve added to the depth. And the more years you have together as a core, you gain more trust having been through the battles.”

Spoelstra has watched the Trail Blazers a couple of times this season.

“They’ve done a really nice job quietly of reloading with talented young players,” he says. “It’s not easy to do. Terry Stotts is a good coach. We have respect for anybody who was part of that Dallas organization two years ago, and Terry was a big part of that.”

Spoelstra offers one other observation.

“You know, (the Blazers) did not really hit rock bottom,” he says. “I know Blazermaniacs didn’t feel great about last year, but we know what rock bottom really is.”

In 2006, when Spoelsta was an assistant on the staff of Riley — now Miami’s president — the Heat won the NBA title. Two years later, they went 15-67, precipitating Riley’s resignation and Spoelstra’s elevation to head coach.

“That’s rock bottom,” Spoelstra says. “That’s hard to do.”

Five years later, the Blazers seem to be on the right track. The Heat, meanwhile, are on a different path to what they hope is the same result as a year ago.

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