TORONTO – The only head coach to have won anything with LeBron James stood there Friday night, muttering about how nights like this develop “collective character.”
Erik Spoelstra, like David Blatt, had to get used to having everybody read his body language or that of James in 2010, when the King signed up with the Miami Heat. Like Blatt, there were reported incidents of dissent. Like Blatt, there was what appeared to be a push – in the 17th game of the Spoelstra-James relationship, a loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
But unlike Blatt, who was fired by the Cleveland Cavaliers Friday night despite having the team in first place either because of James’ behind-the-scenes politicking or (perhaps worse) because general manager David Griffin didn’t think things felt right in the locker room, Spoelstra not only survived, the two of them won back-to-back titles. And when James returned to Cleveland there were times that people who knew him and Spoelstra said he sounded at times an awful lot like his former coach.
Eight years in, Spoelstra is part of the NBA furniture. While he must surely have felt for Blatt like other members of the coaching fraternity, his bigger concern was putting a healthy team on the court. Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic were both out for Friday’s loss to the Toronto Raptors, while Dwyane Wade rolled out of sick bed to play.
Eighty-one. Let that number roll around for a bit. Ten years to the day on which Kobe Bryant dropped 81 points on the Raptors, the Heat scored – wouldn’t you know it – 81 points in a losing effort. On the night on which James and his ‘camp’ dug the knife into the back of Blatt, Spoelstra found himself in Toronto – a city that played a significant role, many believe, in the cementing of his relationship with James.
It was here, after all, where Spoelstra decided to acquiesce to a post-game suggestion by James and let the Heat stay over after a Sunday afternoon win over the Raptors to watch the 2013 Super Bowl, even though they had a Monday night game in Charlotte. That win over the Raptors was the first of 27 consecutive.
Things have changed. The Raptors are in their ascendency, a team very much peering through a window of opportunity. The Heat look old, even when they aren’t beaten up. They have gone from being one of the cities where the road to the Eastern Conference title passes through to being a team you wouldn’t want to meet in the first round. That’s a subtle but significant difference.
“Right now, their [the Raptors] confidence is very high,” Wade noted. “And we are the total opposite. They did what they were supposed to do against an older, short-handed team.”
Chris Bosh felt the game summed up where the Heat are as a group right now: “It’s like we’re scrambling all the time. It’s like we’re close but far at the same time,” he said.
Bosh believed the Heat didn’t stick to their game plan – the opposite take from Wade, who said the Heat succeeded in largely keeping the Raptors out of the paint, only to be done in by their three-point shooting. They essentially said, “beat us with threes without DeMarre Carroll.” The Raptors obliged.
“Everybody was making their shots,” said Bosh, who had 26 points and seven rebounds in 39 minutes. “They must have had a good talk before the game. Everybody was shooting.”
The Raptors have now won two consecutive games against the Heat with Bosh in the lineup, after going 0-for-12 since Bosh left the Raptors for South Beach. Bosh will likely be back in Toronto for the all-star game, where he fully expects to be joined by the Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan, who should be a shoo-in as a coach’s selection along with voted-in starter Kyle Lowry.
“It’s great,” Bosh said when asked about DeRozan’s development. “I mean, just seeing his work ethic that was the major thing I loved about him when he came into this league. He wanted it, you know? He wanted to be a very good basketball player and become a great player eventually. To see him control the game now … the way he’s always able to get his shots up, his poise, passing – the things he’s added to his game? He’s all over the court and doing everything.”
Things certainly have changed.
Spoelstra’s Heat leave Toronto looking very much like a team running on fumes: The product of age, injuries and a franchise-record 12 road games this month. At least they have a coach with the chops to figure it out, the guy who has not only survived the doubts that come when you coach LeBron James, but also won with him.