By Sean Highkin
LeBron James was in the midst of his second-half takeover of Game 2 of the NBA Finals when Dwyane Wade left the bench to head for the scorer's table. Late in the third quarter, this was the time when Wade would customarily spell James, giving the four-time MVP a rest for the stretch run. But Heat coach Erik Spoelstra called Wade back to the bench. With LeBron in this kind of groove (he finished with 35 points on 14-of-22 shooting and 10 rebounds), he was staying in, rotations be damned. Breaking with routine during the Finals could prove costly, but for Spoelstra, routine has always meant change. And that willingness to adapt and play to his roster's strengths night-to-night has put Spoelstra's Heat three wins away from a second consecutive Finals win over the San Antonio Spurs, and a third title in a row.
No matter how many people line up to call Spoelstra underappreciated, he will never get the credit he deserves for the job he's done with the Heat in the Big Three era. He's not only been able to masterfully manage the egos and desires of two alpha dogs with minimal drama, he perfected and honed a system that has maximized the potential of one of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen.
Spoelstra's genius lies in his understanding of the fundamental differences between matchups, a belief in fluidity and adjustment over dogma. He's unafraid to tinker with his rotations, yanking players who have started all season out of the rotation for games at a time, and creating a culture where everyone understands that they still need to stay ready.
If Spoelstra's Heat had a flaw in their first season together, it was that they were too traditional. Joel Anthony played significant rotation minutes for no other reason than his status as the one true center on the team. As James and Wade navigated the rocky early days of their unprecedented pairing, their progress can't have been helped by being jammed into a traditional lineup structure that they played completely outside of.
The breakthrough came the following season, when Spoelstra transitioned to an offense that made a living surrounding LeBron with shooters. James moved to power forward full-time while Bosh jumped to center, usually with Shane Battier or another shooter spacing the floor alongside Wade and Mario Chalmers. It was then that the Heat ceased to be merely an extremely talented basketball team and became a galaxy-destroying robot sent from the future to eliminate all of humanity. A lesser coach might never have hit upon that formula, but Spoelstra never stopped tinkering until he found the combination that nobody has been able to solve -- and he hasn't stopped tweaking it when needed.
Consider last season's Eastern Conference Finals, where it became clear early on that Battier would be ineffective against the Pacers' size and interior defense. He played 31 minutes in the first game, but by the end of the series, he was glued to the bench. When Spoelstra re-inserted him in the Finals, he shot 6-for-8 from beyond the arc in Miami's title-clinching Game 7 win over the Spurs. Battier has floated in and out of Spoelstra's rotation this postseason, losing his starting job to Rashard Lewis during the Eastern Conference Finals and receiving another DNP-CD on Sunday night. If Spoelstra needs to use him again, he'll be ready and he'll be effective.
Lewis' resurrection is another testament to Spoelstra's creativity and the institutional buy-in he commands from his players. Since his starring role in the Magic's 2009 Finals run, Lewis has mostly appeared washed-up, a defensive liability who had nothing to contribute when his once-legendary three-point shot wasn't falling. His signing with the Heat in 2012 smacked of late-career ring chasing. And throughout his first two seasons with the Heat, he was mostly a non-factor. He averaged 16.2 minutes per game during the regular season and shot just 34.3% from three-point range, well below his 38.6% career mark.
But in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, with James out of commission due to foul trouble and Battier once again not in the lineup, Lewis came off the bench to hit six three-pointers. Miami lost that game, but Lewis has been a starter ever since, and will continue to be until the Spurs figure out not to leave him open. That's how fast the Heat's rotations have changed in Spoelstra's regime, and that's why they've stayed so effective.
If Miami wins three more games in the next week and a half, Spoelstra will become only the fourth coach in NBA history to three-peat. The others are John Kundla (1952-54 Lakers), Red Auerbach (1959-66 Celtics) and Phil Jackson (1991-93 and 1995-98 Bulls, 2000-02 Lakers). That doesn't happen by accident. Coaching the best player of his generation along with two other future Hall of Famers makes things easier, but James' former Cavaliers coach Mike Brown wouldn't have had this success with this Heat team. Another coach might have won with the Big Three, but figuring out how to use James this effectively is something nobody will ever be able to take from Spoelstra.
Sean Highkin has covered the NBA for USA Today, ESPN's TrueHoop Network, The Classical, and other places around the web. He lives in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.