Spoelstra, Heat fired up for playoff push
Fans in Portland have been focusing on the accordion-tight playoff race in the NBA's Western Conference.
But take a look at the East. It's a near replica, with six teams within 31/2 games as they battle for playoff seeds 3 through 8.
So heart palpitations have hit Miami's Erik Spoelstra in much the same way they have struck Portland's Terry Stotts. Every game matters.
"Right now, we're in (a tie for seventh) place, but three weeks ago we were in third and fourth," says Spoelstra, whose Heat visit Moda Center to face the Trail Blazers Monday night. "It's a volatile situation. It's wide open, and that's everything you want as a professional. You want games to have meaning. Almost nightly, we're playing games where both teams are playing for something. That's fun."
The Heat could be without two key pieces in Monday's matchup with the Blazers. Center Hassan Whiteside suffered a strained hip flexor that caused him to miss Saturday's 129-102 rout of Washington. Key reserve Dwyane Wade sustained a mild strain of his left hamstring that forced him to the leave the game early in the fourth quarter.
Even after winning four of its last five games, Miami (36-31) could be in a higher spot. From late January to early February, the Heat lost eight games by four points or fewer.
"We had a franchise-record 17 straight 'clutch' games, which means they were decided by just a few points," says Spoelstra, the former point guard at Jesuit High and the University of Portland son of ex-Blazer front-office executive Jon Spoelstra. "And for a stretch, we lost most of those. It's a make-or-miss league, and we missed for a while.
"What we're focused on now is getting our defense shored up and finding some continuity and momentum through the final five weeks (of the regular season) while we're trying to find a playoff spot."
Spoelstra, 47, has done a brilliant job of doing that in his 10 years since succeeding his mentor, Pat Riley, at the Heat helm. Spoelstra (477-313), the league's youngest head coach when he took the reins in 2008-09, has experienced only one losing season. With LeBron James leading the way, Miami reached the NBA Finals four years in a row, winning titles in 2012 and '13.
In December, Spoelstra passed Riley — now the team's president — for the most victories by a coach in franchise history.
"I have mixed emotions about that," says Spoelstra, who joins San Antonio's Gregg Popovich as the only coaches with at least 450 wins with their current franchise. "It looks like a misprint. I view Pat in such incredibly high regard. He is the patriarch of this organization. He and Micky (Arison, the owner) built this from the ground up. I feel Pat should be the winningest coach for this franchise. He has meant so much.
"So it seems strange. In a lot of ways, it feels like I'm still a young coach in this business. But I'm seeing more and more coaches younger than I am every year — dynamic coaches who are bringing new ideas to this game.
"It goes by fast, that's for sure. When I first took the job, Pat told me, 'You blink, and 10 years have gone by.' Sure enough, I blinked and I'm 10 years in."
But James departed for Cleveland after the 2013-14 season, and Miami has missed the playoffs two of the past three years. That's not what either Riley or Spoelstra — who began as Riley's video coordinator in 1995 and has been with the organization for 23 years — have in mind.
Injuries have slowed the Heat's progress this season. Shooting guard Dion Waiters (ankle) was lost for the season in late January. Whiteside (knee) missed a month in late November and December. Power forward Kelly Olynyk (shoulder) sat out six games in February.
Defense is usually Miami's forte, and the Heat rank among the NBA's top 10 in opponents' scoring, opponents' field-goal percentage, opponents' 3-point percentage and blocked shots.
But the Heat are challenged offensively, which has made the Feb. 8 acquisition of Wade doubly important. Wade, rejuvenated after mostly slumbering through his half-season with the Cavaliers, has been a catalyst off the bench for the Heat, scoring more than 20 points in three games over the past two weeks.
Wade starred for Miami from 2003-16 and had a close relationship with Spoelstra, stemming from the latter's time as chief assistant under Riley.
"I love having Dwyane back," Spoelstra says. "It feels normal. It feels like family. It feels like it's the way it's supposed to be. We have a natural comfort level.
"Having him with this group is really important, because of the cachet that he brings to this group. He instills a great deal of confidence and class and there's an aura about him that elevates everybody else. He has panache. That is invaluable for a young team."
Miami has placed a lot of confidence — and a boatload of money — in the hands of 7-footers Whiteside and Olynyk, the latter a former Gonzaga great. Whiteside, signed to a four-year, $98-million contract in 2016, is averaging 14.3 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocked shots while Olynyk (four years, $50 million) is providing 10.8 points and 5.6 rebounds in just 23 minutes off the bench.
"Everything tends to look better when 'K.O.' is on the floor," Spoelstra says. "He makes our offense run smoother. He's a very intelligent team defender, which allows him to be in the right spot. Offensively, guys like playing with him. That's the ultimate compliment."
There will be no "tanking" for the Heat, this season or any season, no matter what happens.
"There are different ways to go about your business, but we believe in always trying to go for it," Spoelstra says. "That's simply the way Pat and Micky think all the time. Regardless of what moves we make in an offseason or what direction we're going in a season, we'll put our team in the best position to win an NBA title now. We always think that is our purpose, that we have a chance to compete for it all, as crazy as that may, or may not, seem."
But this season, Spoelstra adds, "is a 20-game sprint now. The conference is as competitive as I've seen for a while. We know we have a lot of work to do."
How much has the NBA game changed since he began as an assistant with the Heat in 1997?
"It has changed considerably in the last five years, much less going back 20 years," Spoelstra says. "It's changed quite a bit from the '90s, when Chicago was dominating the league. The hand-checking rules were not implemented yet. It was a very physical, paint-oriented, post-up game.
"This is an exciting time to be in the league, with the way teams are playing. The openness and infusion of fresh new ideas from a coaching standpoint all around the league is making everybody have to adapt a little bit quicker."
Spoelstra offers Mike D'Antoni's stint as head coach of the Phoenix Suns, which began in 2003-04, as a trend-setter.
"People said he was changing the way the game was played, and a lot of traditionalists were saying it was bad for the game," Spoelstra says. "His first Phoenix team averaged 24 3-point attempts a game. That would now be in the lower half of the league right now. I find that remarkable.
"I think Mike will coach a team that will average 50 3's a game. It's going that way more than the other way, and all of it's good. It's keeping everybody on their toes, and you have to adapt."
Does Spoelstra have to deal with today's players differently now than when he broke into the league?
"Yes," he says, "but I love the challenge of developing that trust and getting a group together where we're all fighting for the same goals. That's the biggest thing that captures my interest.
"It's a very exciting time to be in this profession. There is as much diversity in head coaching in the NBA as there ever has been, with former players, longtime head coaches, former broadcasters, former video coordinators, former scouts, former college coaches. You really are seeing a lot of fresh, innovative ideas that are making it fun."
Spoelstra soon will turn his attention in the direction of the Blazers, who are making a run at homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
"They're a dangerous team out west," he says. "They have some continuity from the last couple of years. They seem to be gaining confidence. They know who they are. They have a couple of guys (Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum) who can take over in close games.
"And they're very well-coached. Terry has done a really nice job with that team. He has developed a program that absolutely fits the strength of that team."
A year ago, Spoelstra's life changed with his marriage to the former Nikki Sapp. Now, they're expecting their first child — a boy — in "a couple of months."
"My life is really about to change now," he says with a chuckle.