Heat coach Erik Spoelstra’s opening lineup and apparent strategy to start Game 4 on Sunday night, using Joel Anthony instead of Ronny Turiaf and opting for a smaller, faster group, might have been a mistake.
The Celtics opened the game on a 21-6 run. Anthony was not only invisible on offense, but also he could hardly contain Kevin Garnett. Rajon Rondo took advantage of the size difference when he found holes inside, but all that did was open things up on the perimeter, where Boston went 3 or 5 in the opening quarter.
But Spoelstra wasn’t ready to be outdueled by Doc Rivers for 48 minutes. If there’s one thing the 41-year-old coach has shown during his tenure in Miami thus far, it’s that he doesn’t quit, and the Heat nearly rallied before losing 93-91 in overtime.
Spoelstra started making moves when Garnett came out of the game with 4:46 left in the first quarter, when the coach replaced the offensive-limited Anthony with Mike Miller. The Heat still wasn’t playing great defense, but they were at least able to score points. After the Miller substitution, Miami finished the quarter on 14-13 run.
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What Spoelstra still couldn’t seem to figure out, though, was how to stop Rajon Rondo from making Miami’s defense look like a mangled piece of Swiss cheese.
If Rondo wasn’t causing obvious mismatches on transition, he was slowing things down at the top of the key and flashing some his signature creativity. Mario Chalmers tried to stop him, then Dwyane Wade, then LeBron James. None of it worked. Rondo scored eight points and dished out 10 assists in the first half alone.
Down 61-47 at halftime, Spoelstra had one more card to play.
He whipped out the trap. Rivers said he was surprised to see Spoelstra use it on Rondo during Game 3, and he doubted that he’d see a “steady diet” of it in Game 4. But the trap was working. Rondo scored just five points in the second half and his five assists looked like a number any opposing coach would be happy with.
But Spoelstra’s brightest moves might’ve been in the way he handled his superstars.
Wade, who had struggled mightily in the early going, stayed on the court the entire second half as Spoelstra skipped his regular rotation of rest. After going just 2 for 11 from the field in the first half, Wade hit 5 of 10 in the second.
And when LeBron James picked up his fifth foul with 5:32 left in regulation, his coach left him in the game for another 54 seconds, pulled him for 62 seconds, and put him right back in the game.
James hit the game-tying three-pointer with 27.5 seconds left to play to eventually send it to overtime.
What looked like an easy win for the Celtics was suddenly a nail-biter.
Spoelstra’s players may not have executed down the stretch. James missed some crucial free-throws, going just 4 for 8 from the line. Wade let a pass roll right through his legs and out of bounds during a critical possession down one with just two minutes left.
And in overtime, with two seconds left and the Heat down by two, Wade missed a wide-open look from behind the arc.
These things were out of Spoelstra’s control. He may have been outcoached by Rivers in the first half Sunday night, but not in the second, when the Heat outscored the Celtics 42-28.
It would be hard to blame this one on him.