NBA Eastern Conference Finals Breakdown: Boston Celtics vs. Miami Heat
The Miami Heat did not lose Games 3, 4 and 5 because they lack “the heart of a champion” or for some other abstract reason unrelated to their play on the court. So far as I can figure, there are two main reasons that Miami is faltering.
First, Dwyane Wade has not played at an elite level since the last three games of the Indiana series. In Games 4-6, all Heat wins, Wade averaged 33 ppg on 62% shooting. They needed Wade to spectacular, because LeBron James by himself simply wasn’t enough to get it done once Chris Bosh went down. James has again been brilliant this postseason (30 ppg, 9 rpg, 5 apg, 50% FG, 2.1 steals per game), but Miami’s scoring depth behind their Big Three is so weak that they need Wade to have a big game every time out to have a chance. Wade hasn’t done that, averaging 22 ppg, 5 rpg and 5 apg versus Boston. Those are right in line with his regular season numbers, which would be fine if Bosh and his 18 ppg were still there as well.
James and Mario Chalmers have upped their production a bit, but their efforts alone haven’t been enough. And since it’s unlikely that Shane Battier or Udonis Haslem is suddenly going to drop 20 on the Celtics, it’s up to Wade to deliver. Wade has looked a little tentative against Boston, and once he stopped getting calls (17 FT attempts in Game 1+2 versus 5 FT attempts in Games 3+4), it suddenly became a lot harder for Miami to score points.
That leads into the other reason why Miami now faces a 3-2 deficit: the refs.
Here are Miami’s free throw attempt totals, by game: 23, 47, 20, 24, 25. See if you can guess which game was played in Miami and drew outrage from pretty much everyone for the way it was officiated? Yes, shockingly it was Game 2! Even though Miami missed a whopping 16 free throws in the contest, their 31 makes were still more than either team’s attempts in any of the other four games. And, yes, Game 2 went to overtime, but so did Game 4, which featured the lowest combined attempts for both teams (44). Boston shot just 29 free throws in Game 2; without that huge disparity, it’s not a huge leap to say that the Celtics could have won (since they lost in overtime), in which case the series would be over by now. Miami didn’t lose in Boston because they started playing differently—they simply didn’t have the referees there anymore to bail them out.
So don’t blame the Heat’s failure to deliver on buzzwords like “heart” and “desire” that the TV talking heads would have you believe. Blame it on the facts: Miami’s overreliance on its stars and the change in officiating when the series shifted to Boston.
A lot of times, coaches in the NBA are fired for reasons unrelated to their coaching ability. A team may be losing consistently, and the coach is the natural fall guy. Or there might be a situation akin to Mike Brown in Cleveland, where the team continually fell short in the playoffs and ownership felt that a change was needed for change’s sake. But rest assured, if Erik Spoelstra gets fired after this season, there will be tangible reasons.
Rick Carlisle coached circles around him in last year’s Finals as Spoelstra mismanaged the Heat’s point guards, starting Mike Bibby in every game of the postseason until Game 6 of the Finals, a game in which Bibby did not appear at all. Carlisle used J.J. Barea effectively to key wins against the Thunder and Heat; by the end of the season, Spoelstra still didn’t know who his point guard should be. Spoelstra has consistently played James, Wade, Chalmers and Shane Battier against the Celtics, but the minutes for Miami’s other rotation players fluctuate wildly.
The Heat don’t have a great bench, but it’s clear Spoelstra is still confused as to what the Heat’s identity is. How else to explain the fact that Spoelstra didn’t play a single center in Game 5? And why did Ronny Turiaf start Games 2 and 3 if he was only going to play 14 minutes, combined? This confusion is partially related to Chris Bosh’s injury, a situation that Spoelstra epically mismanaged in Game 5. The Heat have struggled all series to find a third scoring option, so when Bosh comes back and puts up 9 points and 7 rebounds in 14 minutes, what does the Spoelstra do? He sits him for the fourth quarter and Miami falters again down the stretch. I don’t have any details about Bosh’s injury, but if you have a guy who’s playing effectively in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, doesn’t it make sense to continue playing him? What could he possibly be saving Bosh for?
If you’re going to play Bosh, play him, if you’re going to sit him, sit him. But don’t show everyone that he can produce and then deny him the chance to do so in one of the most important games of the season. If Spoelstra does indeed get canned after the season, there will be legitimate reasons for it.