In Praise of Erik Spoelstra’s Beautifully Simple Strategy

May 26, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra speaks to members of the media prior to game four of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs against the Indiana Pacers at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
May 26, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra speaks to members of the media prior to game four of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs against the Indiana Pacers at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

Everyone talks about The Big Three and thinks the Heat are an All-Star team. They are not. If fact, they are one of the truest “teams” we’ve seen in a long time. The Spurs are probably the only other squad in the conversation dating back to, oh, the Chris Webber Kings or even Dream’s Rockets, but few rely on as many role players as the Heat do.

And Erik Spoelstra deserves immense credit for his ability to create a system that so many have thrived in.

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Obviously LeBron James is the engine of it all, and none of it would work without him. Thus, what they do isn’t entirely replicable, and “LeBron turning into God on Earth” is part of the plan. Some of that was certainly on display in the Heat’s Game 5 loss to the Pacers, as James played just 24 minutes due to foul trouble and Miami’s offense was markedly less efficient while he sat.

So, yes, LeBron is the most vital cog, and Captain Obvious knows that the Heat wouldn’t be the Heat without him. But what Spoelstra has really done — using James and Dywane Wade as catalysts — is tying his team’s success to two things: hitting 3s and forcing turnovers.

If they do those two things well in any given game, they almost always win. If they do only one of them well, they have a very good shot. And if neither works, they can always fall back on the hope-LeBron-and/or-Wade goes nuclear plan.

At just 36.4%, they actually didn’t shoot very well from deep in the regular season (for them anyway), and that was a large reason that they struggled more than expected. It’s hard to say exactly why.

Perhaps it was the shooters themselves? Shane Battier dropped from 43.0% in 2012-13 to 34.8% in 2013-14. Or maybe it had to do with Dwyane Wade not being on the court enough to collapse defenses and kick out? He played just 1,775 minutes, the lowest of his career and fewer than even Ray Allen.

Or was it that LeBron simply didn’t put forth full effort on as many possession after three straight deep playoff runs to the NBA Finals? ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh wrote that the reason LeBron lost by so much to Kevin Durant in MVP voting was because of lackluster defense, so it’s easy to speculate that maybe he also slacked off a bit in his energy-depleting drive-and-kick game.

Regardless of what happened in the past, the Heat are again lights-out from 3-point land. Their paltry 36.4% regular season long-range shooting has ballooned to 39.3% in the playoffs (the best of any team) on an incredible 23.4 attempts per night. This is also ahead of the 38.1%, on 20.2 tries per game, they hit last year in the postseason on the way to a title. And if they win another ring this year, they are likely to be the highest-volume 3-point-shooting champ in history, potentially breaking the 2011 Dallas Mavericks’ record of 22.2 per game.

Most impressive of all might be this fact: six of Miami’s players are shooting 40% or better — and that doesn’t even include the best shooter of all-time, Ray Allen, who has hit 38.3% of his attempts this postseason.

It’s all predicated on Spoelstra’s “pace and space” system, in which LeBron and Wade break down the D enough on pick-and-rolls (or ideally in transition) to collapse the defense and then kick out to an open shooter.

It’s something LeBron can do in his sleep, and he can find the open man from any angle. He can simply make passes nobody else in the NBA (perhaps ever) can. Who else can make those turning-in-midair jump passes from the right block to the opposite wing that hit his teammate perfectly in rhythm and in his shooting pocket?

As a result, Miami has recorded an assist of 87.6% of its 3s this postseason, the highest mark of any team. Compare that to teams like the Trail Blazers and Rockets, which only assisted on 71.3% and 75.5% of their triples, respectively.

How deadly are the Heat when they are making 3s?

Before last night, the LeBron-era Heat were 23-3 (an 0.885 winning percentage) in the playoffs when they made 10 or more 3-pointers in a game, per Basketball-Reference. And in one of those losses — when the Pacers blew them out in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season — it took an alarmingly bad shooting night inside the arc (29.6% on 54 two-pointers) to counteract the 3-point success.

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  • Last night, the Heat lost to the Pacers while hitting 15 treys. To became the fourth team to beat a Big Three Heat team that make 10 or more 3s, it took a heroic effort from Paul George (21 fourth-quarter points) and LeBron playing just 24 minutes (his low this postseason was 32 minutes and he never played fewer than 41 against Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals last year).

    I think Spo would roll the dice on that not happening again. A lot of what he wanted to do worked — on offense anyway.

    Which takes us to the other side of the ball.

    Indiana’s other statistical key to victory last night was holding onto the ball. Early on, when they were coughing up the rock constantly, it looked like the Pacers would once again turn the ball over to defeat. Miami forced 11 turnovers in the first half, including 6 steals, and scored 12 points off of those Pacer giveaways. But Indiana only gave up 2 more turnovers in the second half, leading to just 2 Heat points.

    As Zach Lowe expertly detailed for Grantland, Spoelstra has dialed back on his high-pressure defensive tactics, but the team still knows where its toast is peanut buttered on defense: forcing turnovers. Spoelstra realized early on that, as good as LeBron and Wade are in a half-court offense, they are down-right unstoppable on the break. Either they will score or they will find someone who can.

    No team forced a turnover on a higher percentage of its opponents’ possessions this season than the 17.6% of Miami. This number in and of itself is impressive but the critical part is how well they scored off of these turnovers. It makes all the difference.

    In wins during the regular season, they averaged 20.2 points per game off of turnovers in wins compared to just 17.6 per game in losses. That’s a 3-point swing that accounts for much of the 4.8-point average margin of victory the Heat posted this year.

    It’s no surprise that the Heat only scored 14 such points last night in a loss. They had the 3s to win, but didn’t have the turnover points — or, ya know, that LeBron guy.

    It’s incredibly simple.

    The Xs and Os underlying the success are not, but Spoelstra had taken the best-in-class tools he has been given (the brilliant penetrating and playmaking of LeBron and Wade, and the versatility of Chris Bosh) and fabricated a strategy that hinges on making 3s and forcing turnovers.

    It’s a complex scheme built off of simplicity.

    Many people still refuse to give Spoelstra the credit he deserves for creating innovative strategies on both ends of the court. Even if his team wins its third straight title, most will still coronate LeBron — as they should. But while plenty of coaches could ride the best player alive to a title, few could put him in such an ideal system to do it again. And maybe again.