If most of your basketball viewing lately has involved the NCAA Tournament, where coaches love to create the impression that there is nobody on the floor more important than them, the end of Sunday’s game between the Heat and Spurs probably looked a little strange.
With less than 10 seconds to go and the Heat trailing by one, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra stood on the sideline, hands on his hips. He stood that way as Ray Allen advanced the ball up the court — after Spoelstra had waved him in that direction, emphatically — and even as Allen dribbled into trouble and two Spurs defenders had an opportunity to trap him along the opposite sideline. Spoelstra watched as Allen swung the ball to Chris Bosh at the top of the key, where the forward gathered the pass, rose up over a scrambling Tim Duncan and netted the game-winning 3-pointer.
It was a crazy end to March, when basketball briefly becomes America’s most popular sport and guys like Jim Boeheim, Rick Pitino and Jim Calhoun have become legends. Yet unlike his counterparts in the college game, and even some of his colleagues in the NBA, Spoelstra refrained from over-coaching in a refreshing change of pace from the self-important bench bosses who typically dominate such clutch situations.
“I loved it,” Heat forward Shane Battier told ESPN of Spoelstra’s decision not to call a timeout. “End-of-game situation, you’re down and needing a bucket, do not let the defense set. You go and attack. Calling timeout would allow the Spurs to sub and get their defensive squad in, and we had a much better chance of scoring. All coaches want to show that they know their stuff and can win games with drawing up a play at the end of games, but it takes a lot for coaches to take their imprint off the situation like that.”
What is right for Spoelstra and the Heat is not necessarily right for everyone. For a lot of college teams (but not as many as the coaches would have you believe), calling a timeout to draw up a designed play and give the players a chance to exhale makes sense. Likewise, some NBA coaches, like the the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, the Celtics’ Doc Rivers and the Mavericks’ Rick Carlisle, are so good at out-of-timeout situations that whatever they scribble down is likely to be at least as effective as whatever their future Hall of Fame stars would do on their own.
Spoelstra, with his hands-off approach to the final possession on Sunday, demonstrated that he knows his strengths and weaknesses. He is exceptional at adapting his system to his talent, and the way he subtly nudged LeBron James into becoming more post-oriented last season was a masterful work of coaching psychology. Even with James and Dwyane Wade sitting out on Sunday — which opened a whole ‘nother can of worms — Spoelstra swallowed his ego and trusted his remaining players to make the better play.
On Miami’s final play, Battier was responsible for calling a timeout if the Heat got into trouble, which they never did. Allen and Bosh executed a quick pick and roll on the perimeter, and when both Tiago Splitter and Danny Green chased Allen outside the 3-point line, Allen flipped the ball to a wide-open Bosh. For all anybody knew, that was a situational play the Heat have diagrammed for just those conditions, except Spoelstra admitted it was not.
“It was probably a better look than anything we could’ve diagrammed,” Spoelstra told reporters.
Granted, this was a regular-season game. Maybe in the pressure of June, when every move is analyzed more harshly, Spoelstra will take the safe course and call a timeout, just to make it look like he is doing something. Maybe not, though. In that event, the Heat presumably would have James and Wade on the court, giving Spoelstra two more proven pros who know how to handle those situations.
The next time the last 30 seconds of a game takes 15 minutes in real time, remember the way Spoelstra handled the end of Sunday’s game. Another coach may feel the need to prove to people that he is the genius in charge. Spoelstra apparently is content with just winning.