SAN ANTONIO -- It’s a relationship that might be unique to all professional work environments, never mind professional sports.
Where else other than the Heat’s locker room do employees criticize middle management publicly, and then middle management not only acquiesces to employee demands, but also does so without hesitation or workplace drama.
It happened between the first two games of the NBA Finals in San Antonio, and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra’s smooth managerial acumen might have been the ultimate difference between the Heat tying the series and falling into a 2-0 hole.
Responding to calls by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to better utilize the Heat’s bench, Spoelstra worked James Jones and Udonis Haslem into the game on Sunday at AT&T Center. In addition to adding players to the rotation, Spoelstra also inserted his first reserve unit into the game earlier than normal. They were only slight changes from one game to the next, but according to the Heat’s players it made a big difference in the fourth quarter.
“I thought Spo did a good job of taking guys out early and not leaving them out there so our bodies wouldn’t get tired,” said Rashard Lewis, whose career is experiencing a renaissance at 34 years old. “It was keeping us rested and keeping our main guys rested and shifting them in and out and keeping them with a lot of energy going into that fourth quarter so they could take over the game.”
Shift in strategy
It’s difficult to quantify how the slight shift in strategy affected the game, but there is plenty of circumstantial evidence:
• The most obvious, other than the final score, is that James not only finished the game after his leg cramping episode in Game 1, but also he appeared to grow stronger in the second half.
James had 12 points in 13 minutes the second half of Game 1. He had 22 points in the second half of Game 2, including a magnificent third quarter in which he went 6 of 7 from the field and 2 of 2 from three-point range for 14 points. He even found time to catch a break before the fourth period.
James’ brief rest periods after monstrous individual efforts in the second and third quarters contributed to the Heat’s strong finish.
In the second quarter, James scored 11 points and had six rebounds in 8 1/2 minutes. The Heat trailed by 11 points at one point in the period, but the teams went into halftime tied 43-43.
“For me, at that point in the game, yeah, I was tired,” James said of the second quarter. “I got two offensive rebounds. [We were] able to go back up with them, put some pressure on their defense.
“So Spo was very, very consistent and great with his adjustments [Sunday] as far as the personnel — in and out with guys, in and out. And when I asked to come out, he took me out and I was able to go back in.”
• Chris Bosh began the fourth quarter with a power move inside for a dunk and three-point play and later hit a crucial three-pointer to give the Heat a two-point lead with 1:18 left in the game.
In between those plays, Bosh was substituted out of the game for a quick two-minute rest. Before the game, Spoelstra informed the team in the locker room that he would be rotating players more liberally in Game 2. Bosh said that bit of information helped him manage his minutes while on the court. In other words, he wasn’t as concerned with saving energy for the fourth quarter. And when the game’s pivotal play finally arrived, Bosh’s legs were fresh enough to knock down one of his signature three-pointers.
“After the last game — the last game was a very unique game, as everybody knows — we had guys in foul trouble,” Bosh said. “It was just a weird game as far as flow was concerned. Coach had a difficult time really responding to that. And he always makes good adjustments in hindsight.
“So coming into [Sunday], he talked to us and let us know the chances that we would have. And when you know that you’re going to get a sub, you can play a lot harder, because you know that your guy is going to come in and back you up. And we have confidence in our bench and guys to come in and do their job.”
Spurs fade late
Meanwhile, the Spurs faded in the fourth quarter.
Kawhi Leonard fouled out, and Tony Parker and Tim Duncan combined to miss four consecutive free throws with 6:43 left in the game. James followed those misses with a three-pointer, which resulted in a probable seven-point swing. The Spurs led 87-85 when Mario Chalmers committed a flagrant foul on Parker, which sent him to the line for the first of those four attempts. James’ spot-up three-pointer seconds later put the Heat ahead 88-87.
“[Spoelstra] said that the substitution pattern was going to change a little bit. So it’s nothing out of the ordinary, nothing we haven’t done before,” Bosh said. “If we make substitution changes, we should continue to pick up our play.”