Ethan J. Skolnick

It’s time to give Heat coach Spoelstra credit — even if it’s unwanted

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra discusses playoff battle

Miami Heat Head Coach Erik Spoelstra discusses playoff battle against the Charlotte Hornets.
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Miami Heat Head Coach Erik Spoelstra discusses playoff battle against the Charlotte Hornets.

Ask him to compare, just expect it to go nowhere.

Where does this season rank among Erik Spoelstra’s eight as Heat coach?

“Oh, I don’t know,” he scoffed. “I’m too far in the trees right now.”

If he is, this is the rare time over the past few months that he hasn’t been battling some brush fire, coming off a dismantling of the Charlotte Hornets in Game 1 of the first round. Yet he still won’t give you an answer, not if he senses you’re angling to give him credit.

He has changed some this season, changed more into himself, but he has not changed enough to make anything about himself. Not even after 399 regular-season wins (.623 percentage) and 64 playoff wins (fifth-most in history in the first 100 games). So he would never say what somebody should say:

He has done good work this season, probably his best.

Better than his first two seasons (2008-09, 2009-10) in which he took limited teams, other than prime superstar Dwyane Wade, to the postseason.

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Better than any of the four when he had LeBron James, even though those came with unprecedented pressure, and included a 27-game win streak, four NBA Finals appearances and two titles.

Better, for sure, than last season’s playoff miss, though that comes with an asterisk: Henry Walker, Danny Granger and Justin Hamilton couldn’t get NBA gigs in 2015-16, and it took Michael Beasley until March.

Spoelstra has had more material this season, but that hasn’t made it much easier. Again, at the All-Star break, he lost the player (Chris Bosh) he had learned to lean upon the most. That’s where his stubbornness — a character trait he openly acknowledges — helped some, when he told his players on Feb. 19 in Atlanta: “Don’t put your head down. For what? No. Our expectations haven’t changed.”

But has sometimes set the stubbornness aside, at times embodying one of his pet expressions: “Adapt or die.” He has done so by design and necessity. He’s abandoned the closed-off persona he projected earlier in his Heat career, tearing down part of the wall, letting his personality peek through.

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That has been particularly necessary with this team, with its wide variances in age, personal background and preferred playing style. To get to know it, he’s had to let players know him. He’s tried to respect older players while empowering the younger ones, and it has helped with the latter that he doesn’t come off as crusty; he gets on the practice floor to drill with players. And, while they likely don’t know this, he took a brief break from playoff prep to watch Straight Outta Compton.

Justise Winslow, 20, was surprised Tuesday to learn Spoelstra was 45. He would have guessed 39. “But we kind of keep him young,” Winslow said. “He can kind of relate to our world and what we’re going through.”

Miami Heat rookie Justise Winslow speaks about his contribution to the team during playoffs against the Hornets.

Spoelstra had to soothe Goran Dragic early in the season when the pace was slower than promised. “He was always honest with me,” Dragic said. “And then when Chris went out, he said, ‘OK, G, now it’s time to run.’”

He has had to guide Hassan Whiteside day after day, with more individualized attention that he’s afforded any other player in eight years. “You have to get to know people,” Spoelstra said. “I feel maybe as I’ve gotten older as a coach, I’ve started to get that a little bit more.”

He has had to embrace self-evaluation and strategic change. There’s much written about his January tweaks to the offense to get Luol Deng and Winslow in motion.

Miami Heat Guard Dwyane Wade reflects on playoff game one against the Charlotte Hornets and looks ahead to Game 2.

Wade had another example.

“We’ve played one way on defense for 12 years, and now in my 13th year, we completely switched up how we do things,” Wade said. “Just him being more open to where the game is going when it comes to three-point shooters. The one thing we did a lot was the low guy would chuck the big and have to rotate. That’s a killer in this game today. You have to pull so many triggers with guys who can shoot the ball. So it was a big change, and it took some time to adjust, but it’s been good.”

The compliments that count most come from other coaches. On Tuesday after Hornets practice, Steve Clifford explained how Spoelstra has compensated for the lack of three-point shooters by unleashing all sorts and sizes of players on the baseline, at any time, so defenses can’t read it. He said no other team does this.

“To me, a lot of guys have done great jobs with their teams,” Clifford said. “But he has on the fly without Bosh brought in Joe Johnson and they play to the strengths of their best players as well as any team in our league. They’ve done an unbelievable job.”

Even if Erik Spoelstra has no time to hear it.

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