Erik Spoelstra isn’t the kind of hunter who stops in the middle of a trail to discuss the chase.
“When you’re caught up in it, you’re so deep in the forest you can’t see the trees,” Spoelstra responded Friday after practice when asked what surprised him most about his team’s success after it lost its leading scorer at the All-Star break. “And I’m deeper in the forest now with the playoffs.”
By the time Hassan Whiteside and Cody Zeller line up at midcourt for the opening tip of Game 1 between Miami and Charlotte at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Heat fans surely will be too deep into dreaming about what’s ahead to care to look back, too. They will be too involved in trying to figure out whether the Warriors or Spurs are a better matchup for Miami in the NBA Finals and plotting where they’ll be banging pots and pans in celebration after Dwyane Wade and Joe Johnson finish off LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
But before going any deeper into that fantasy land, it’s probably best to look back at the journey to this point. Because somehow amid ugly losses at the Lakers and Magic and to the Nets and Timberwolves, Miami still found a way to accomplish its goal of becoming the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference despite the loss of Chris Bosh.
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“You do have to be able compartmentalize, step back and realize there’s been a lot of good things,” Spoelstra said Wednesday, still staggered after the Heat blew a 26-point, second-half lead in a loss to the Celtics that ended up helping it avoid Boston in the first round.
“We’ve had a lot of adversity in that locker room and I really commend those guys for coming together and not making excuses. It looked pretty bleak after All-Star break. It’s easy to look at it now and say, ‘Oh, that’s what was expected — 19-10.’ That’s not what people were thinking.”
Only four teams put together a better second half than the Heat this season: 73-win Golden State, 67-win San Antonio, this Charlotte team and second-seeded Toronto.
The Heat evolved from averaging the second-fewest points (96.0) in the league before the All-Star break to becoming the fifth-highest scoring team (107.4) in the league after it — without its leading scorer. According to STATS, its was the fifth largest scoring increase by a team after the All-Star break in NBA history.
Spoelstra didn’t score a single point of course. But Wade said he deserves credit for the way the Heat reinvented itself without Bosh. Truth be told, no one, not even Wade, was quite sure how it would all work out.
“The one thing I’ve loved about Spo these last couple years is his ability to adapt,” Wade said. “When he was younger, I don’t know if he would have been able to adapt. But now, as an older coach, the way he’s been able to adapt has been refreshing for myself and other guys.
“That was great what he did — him and his staff — coming out of the break. Changing it up a little bit, understanding we couldn’t play the same way. Then in January when we went through a long period of time where we were losing, we switched another part of our offense up and it helped open up things too. They’ve been adapting all year to different personnel and it’s been impressive.”
A big part of Spoelstra’s coaching job, veteran Udonis Haslem said, was reminding the team there was more talent on this roster than last season, when Bosh’s absence in the second half led to a 15-15 finish and the Heat missing the playoffs. The rest, Haslem said, was up to the players to see that through.
“He just kept pounding into our heads that this team, this season was bigger than us individually, and to focus on the things we could control,” Haslem said. “We just refused to feel sorry for ourselves.”
The turning point, players said, was right after the All-Star break when in that first game without Bosh, Wade and Whiteside the Heat pulled off a 115-111 road win over the Atlanta Hawks. Luol Deng scored 30 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in his first game at power forward and point guard Goran Dragic had 17 points and 10 assists. It was the first time both played bigger roles and shined in the Heat’s uptempo offense.
Dragic said he knew the Heat was capable of playing that way. But until that point — until Miami did it together and didn’t just talk about it — he didn’t have the confidence they could.
“I think at that point, when we beat Atlanta, we realized we had to do it collectively to fill in for Chris,” said Deng, who went from being last on the team before the break in plus/minus (minus-118) to leading the team after the break (plus-144). “For us, it was huge to realize that we can actually do it by playing this style and playing together. That’s what our second half of the season became.”
For Wade, that win — and the signing of Joe Johnson in late February — became the time he said he knew the Heat had a good chance to not only make the playoffs, but to make a run in them.
Now, that part of the chase begins. The goal is to go as deep into the forest as possible.