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CHAMPIONSHIP SHORTFALL. Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra watches the action during the first half of a National Basketball Association conference final playoff game against the Boston Celtics, in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

FINALS FIGHT. Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra gestures as forward Jae Crowder (#99) walks by during a National Basketball Association championship playoff game against the Los Angeles Lakers last month in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

From The Asian Reporter, V30, #12 (November 2, 2020), pages 10 & 11.

Spoelstra builds Miami family but falls short of a championship

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

For all of the unexpected twists in this year’s highly unusual National Basketball Association (NBA) season, at least one thing seemed normal. LeBron James was back in the Finals. His opponent, however, was more of a surprise: the fifth-seed Miami Heat, with his former head coach, Filipino-American Erik Spoelstra, at the helm. And if not for a pair of devastating game 1 injuries, Spo might have delivered the King his seventh loss in 10 championship appearances.

James missed the playoffs last year for the first time in his career, meaning he also watched the championship series from home for the first time in eight seasons. The last time James missed the NBA Finals was 2010, just before he left the Cleveland Cavaliers to join Spoelstra and the Heat. Along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, James formed one of best trios in NBA history, and the Heat won the championship twice in four seasons in the most successful stretch of his career.

Since James left Miami in 2014, Spoelstra has worked hard to rebuild a championship contender, with mediocre results. Before this season, Spoelstra’s record in the post-James era was 209-201, with two undistinguished playoff appearances in five seasons.

But, as I wrote in May, Spoelstra built an excellent team this year. Miami’s veteran backcourt of Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic helped Spo develop a young frontcourt featuring power forward Bam Adebayo and sharpshooter Duncan Robinson. Supersubs Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro delivered fire from the bench and both were named to the NBA’s All-Rookie teams.

When play was halted in March due to COVID-19, Miami stood in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, with a record of 41-24, their playoff berth already clinched. Five months later, when the teams finished the season "in the bubble," the Heat went 3-5, dropping their seed from fourth to fifth.

This matched them up with the red-hot Indiana Pacers, who had gone 6-2 in their bubble games. But the Heat swept the Pacers, led by Dragic, Butler, and Herro, who accounted for more than half of their team’s points in the series. The victory set up a matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks, who had the league’s best regular season record and featured reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Heat made quick work of Milwaukee, too, losing for the first time in this year’s playoffs but still winning the series, 4-1. Dragic and Butler again led the team in scoring, with Adebayo ranking third. The trio also showed how to share, dishing out exactly 22 assists apiece in the series.

In the conference finals, the Boston Celtics gave the Heat its first real playoff challenge. Miami won game 1 by three points in overtime, then rallied in the fourth quarter of game 2 to win by five. Boston led all of game 3 for their first win, and Miami struck back with a dominant game 4 in which Herro scored a career-high 37 points. Facing elimination in game 5, Boston exploded for a 41-point third quarter to take the win, but Miami closed out game 6 — and the series — with a 25-13 run over the final six minutes.

The usual suspects of Adebayo, Dragic, Herro, and Butler led the way for Miami, this time accounting for nearly 72 percent of their team’s points in the series. With their core players playing so well, Miami seemed ready to roll over James and the Los Angeles Lakers for the championship.

Instead, tragedy struck in game 1. Miami lost Dragic in the first quarter to a left foot injury and Adebayo to a neck injury in the third. The Lakers won that first game decisively, 116-98, and Spoelstra had to make some adjustments when neither Dragic nor Adebayo could return for game 2.

Butler slid over to point guard, Herro stepped up to a starting role, and Meyers Leonard and Andre Iguodala tried to fill Adebayo’s shoes. It wasn’t enough, however, as James and Anthony Davis combined for 65 of their team’s 124 points, and the Lakers won the second game by 10.

In game 3, Miami clawed its way back with a 115-104 victory, led by Jimmy Butler, who recorded just the third 40-point triple-double in NBA Finals history. Adebayo returned for game 4, but he couldn’t keep Miami’s momentum going. Each time the Heat got close, the Lakers pulled away, winning 102-96. As Spoelstra said after the match, "There were some moments of truth there at the end, and … they won those moments of truth."

But Miami wasn’t ready to go home just yet. Despite James scoring a playoff-high 40 in game 5, Miami prevailed, 111-108. Robinson shot 7-of-13 from downtown to score 26, a career-best playoff performance, and Butler scored 35, including eight of the team’s final 10 points. After the game, Spoelstra said of Butler, "His will to win is remarkable … Every young player coming into this league should study footage of Jimmy Butler."

Incredibly, Dragic returned for the critical game 6, but he wasn’t at full strength, scoring five points in 19 minutes. The Heat were inspired to see him back on the court, but Los Angeles was the better team. They outscored Miami by 20 in the second quarter and held a 29-point lead by the start of the fourth quarter. Miami fought back to narrow the deficit to 13, but the result was the same: James won his fourth ring, his first with the Lakers.

Following the game, Spoelstra talked about Butler, who has played for three other teams but says the Heat feels like his home now. "I think that’s what we’re all looking for is to be a part of a family," Spo said. He went on to talk more about that family: the leadership of Butler, the maturity of Adebayo, the growth of Herro, and the work ethic of Dragic. One can only wonder how his family might have fared if not for the game 1 injuries to two of his best players.

Spo has again made something special in Miami, but this time it’s not built around a trio of superstars. Instead, he’s created a family of rising stars and veterans who worked together through pain and difficulty during one of the strangest seasons in NBA history. When next season comes around and things hopefully get closer to normal, the rest of the league better watch out.

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