Celtics-Heat Game 5: Erik Spoelstra vs. the depths of pressure

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The thing you have to understand is that I don’t think you can really study Erik Spoelstra and think he’s a bad coach. His preparation, his devotion, his work ethic, his approach, most of his tactics, and his overall intelligence make it pretty hard to validate what so many people say about him, just because he’s at the head of a team they hate, one he didn’t assemble, ask for, or prematurely celebrate with.

And he seems like a genuinely great guy.

Which is why it’s really hard to write this, and I take zero pleasure in it. Spoelstra’s spent his entire career in pro basketball in Miami. He worked his way up from video guy sleeping in the tape room to head coach of the most talked about team in the world.  So the fact that he may wind up being the fall guy is just brutal.

But there’s just no way around it. Erik Spoelstra has gotten worked in this series. Now, that’s no terrible damnation. Phil Jackson was worked by Rivers in 2008. Stan Van Gundy in 2010. Rivers is a brilliant motivator who has also gotten really incredibly good at tactical adjustments. But in a series like this you look at what cost Miami a game they could have won. And Spoelstra’s decisions account for a lot.

For starters, Joel Anthony was a DNP-CD Tuesday night. Anthony wasn’t going to make a huge difference in the game. But in a game where the Heat were slaughtered late by offensive rebounds and Kevin Garnett inside, Anthony might have helped. Instead, Spoelstra elected to play Udonis Haslem heavy minutes, despite Chris Bosh saying he was ready. They needed a presence inside, Spo turned to reliable, safe Haslem, who the Celtics funneled the ball to and watched him drop it. This isn’t Haslem’s fault, he’s not an offensive weapon (and surely Anthony would have done no better at catching and finishing), but he’s also out-sized. Spoelstra wanted a small lineup to battle the Celtics’ small lineup, not factoring that with KG, their small lineup was bigger than Miami’s.

Since Game 2, Spoelstra hasn’t been able to counter the Celtics’ use of Garnett and Boston’s counter to the Heat’s front. When the Celtics adjusted to the Heat fronting Garnett, Spoelstra did not throw different looks at them. He did not switch up his coverage. He just did more of it. And watched the 900-year-old Garnett decimate them. Garnett has played his face off in these Conference Finals, beyond what he’s done all year and is an all-time great. The Heat also opened up a welcome sign for him in the paint.

And then late, he’s running plays with LeBron James standing in the corner. Some of this is on James. But even looking back to last year’s semifinals when James nailed key three-pointers over Boston, they were off the dribble, gauging the defense. Spot-up? Not so much. But those were the looks James got in the fourth. They needed to activate their MVP, create space by any means necessary. Instead they let Wade trying and slice through four Celtics defenders. Another fail.

The motivation matters, too. Spoelstra told Doris Burke on ESPN in the interview before the fourth that Boston had “got into (Miami’s) mind a little bit.” He actually said this. On national television. In the Eastern Conference Finals. It’s not that he said it, it’s that he was so obviously wrapped up in it happening. The Heat were frustrated and falling apart and Spoelstra couldn’t pull them out of it. That matters. Maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe they should be able to on their own. But he’s part of it.

So Spoelstra has been worked over, and it’s a crushing assessment of a guy who never asked for this. But he’s here, it’s his responsibility, and if someone is likely to take the fall this summer should the probable happen and Boston close them out in Game 6, it’s going to be Spoelstra. Spoelstra didn’t collapse, the Heat did. But Spoelstra just hasn’t done enough to help the Heat win this series. Someone has to be held accountable.

And we know it won’t be LeBron.

Gordon Hayward: My relationship with Brad Stevens ‘completely overstated and overhyped’

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Gordon Hayward is still trying to seize control of the narrative surrounding his free agency.

The Celtics – coached by Brad Stevens, Hayward’s coach at Butler – expressed interest in Hayward in 2014. Then, with Stevens still in Boston, they completed their highly anticipated pursuit of Hayward by signing him this year.

Just don’t pin that all on Stevens.

Hayward on The Woj Pod:

The relationship between Brad and I has been completely overstated and overhyped from everybody.

And you mentioned it. There was always rumors about going to Boston, and those, to me, were always just rumors. I didn’t really ever think about it, because I wasn’t a free agent, wasn’t really concerned with the Boston thing. But everybody else was saying, “Oh, he’s going to go to Boston because of Brad.” And we had a great relationship, but it wasn’t like we were constantly texting each other or calling each other. He’s the head coach of the Boston Celtics. He’s got things to worry about.

I played for Brad for two years. And so it wasn’t like everybody kind of made it seem, like we were besties or something.

That was something I kind of was – “what’s this going to be like? It’s been seven years since he coached me.” And immediately though, he called me July 1. And after that phone call, I thought like, “Oh, no. This isn’t going be any different.” It was one of those things where he made me feel like, even if I don’t go to Boston, it’ll be fine, and we’ll still have that great relationship, and he’ll still be in my corner, and he’ll still be rooting for me and supporting me.

Hayward was in control, and he chose Boston. Stevens didn’t do it for him. Hayward did it – and he did it the evening of July 4, not before.

Got it?

That darned fake news, always talking up the Hayward-Stevens relationship. Take this article in The Players Tribune, in which the author contends Hayward viewed Stevens as “the person I knew I could count on the most.”

Look, NBA players generally like the trappings of being recruited. They generally dislike the perception that they were recruited and weren’t in complete control. That’s why Kevin Durant keeps denying Draymond Green‘s stories of recruiting the superstar to the Warriors.

Elements of Hayward’s relationship with Stevens were probably perceived incorrectly by some. I doubt the Celtics’ coach was in frequent contact with a Jazz player. But the underlying idea – that Stevens made Boston more likely to pursue and get Hayward – was also probably correct.

Report: Cavaliers prioritizing youth in Kyrie Irving trade

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In the wake of Kyrie Irving‘s trade request, the Cavaliers have three fundamental options:

  • Trade Irving for immediate help to continue a championship chase around LeBron James
  • Trade Irving for younger players and/or draft picks to kick start a rebuild in case LeBron leaves next summer
  • Don’t trade Irving

It seems Cleveland is taking the second route.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

The Cavaliers are projecting confidence they can snare a king’s ransom for Kyrie Irving, and more than that, they are acting — for now — as if a trade is almost inevitable, and that there is little chance of salvaging their relationship with him, according to several sources familiar with the situation.

Cleveland is seeking a bundle of assets, but the highest priority right now is snagging a blue-chip young player, according to sources across the league. That is not necessarily a signal they think James is leaving. They would like to get everything: one or two veterans who can help LeBron dethrone Golden State, that blue-chipper, and picks. They want to prepare for a worst-case scenario of LeBron leaving without shoving him out the door by acquiring players he deems unready. Even so, the blue-chipper appears to be their guidepost, sources say.

Barring a misevaluation by another team, Cleveland can’t trade Irving for better players now and significant long-term assets. The Cavaliers could try to straddle both paths, but the more they prioritize the future, the less they’ll get for the present (and vice versa).

I’m a little surprised the Cavs aren’t posturing about not trading Irving to drive up his value – especially after the leak – and I’m surprised they’re not pushing in for next year. A championship lasts forever, and they’re still contending.

But it seems they’ve chosen their course. The big danger: It reduces their ability to win this year and pushes LeBron further out the door.

Reading that description of Cleveland’s target, does anyone fit better than Andrew Wiggins – whom, in a strange twist, the Cavaliers drafted then traded for Kevin Love? The 22-year-old is seen by many as a rising star, and his value is in Irving’s general range. Plus, not only did Irving list the Timberwolves among his preferred teams, Jimmy Butler (a friend) and Karl-Anthony Towns are urging Minnesota management to deal for Irving.

The Wiggins we’ve seen so far – an underwhelming defender and 3-point shooter – would fit poorly with LeBron. Wiggins is young enough to develop and adjust, but LeBron’s free agency is only a year away. It’s a dangerous time to take a step back.

But if the Cavs are going to trade Irving for a young player, that’s almost certainly what they must do.

Damian Lillard talks about his “no pressure” pitch to Carmelo Anthony, selling Portland

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Self-made, over-achieving players in the NBA tend not to be the recruiters. They worked hard and made it to where they are more on their own, and their world-view follows that path. Think Derrick Rose in Chicago.

Damian Lillard was one of those guys, but he has done a little recruiting of late — he reached out to Carmelo Anthony last week. Lillard told Chris Mannix of NBC Radio (who is filling in for Dan Patrick for the day on his national radio show) that it wasn’t really the John Calipari hard-sell.

“It wasn’t really a pitch, I just reached out to him and let him know the interest just wasn’t from our front office, if there was a possibility there was definitely interest from the players as well, and I didn’t want that to be confused,” Lillard said on the radio show. “I didn’t put no pressure on him or ask him a bunch of questions, I just said what it was from our end.”

That is nice, but Anthony reportedly has focused in on Houston, and might settle for Cleveland (if there was a deal to be had). Would ‘Melo waive his no-trade clause to head to Portland?

“I didn’t get a sense that he wouldn’t,” Lillard said in a tepid response. “What we have here is a good situation for him and that’s just kind of where it went. I let him know what I thought he could do for our team and what our team could do with his presence. And that was it. We didn’t go over no details or talk about a no trade clause or nothing like that. He’s gonna make his own decision to do that or not, I just want to make sure we had some kind of a conversation.”

It’s a start. It’s likely not enough. Anthony wants to go somewhere and chase a ring, and despite what C.J. McCollum thinks, Portland with ‘Melo isn’t a contender. Even with Anthony, I would have them sixth in the West, maybe fifth at best (Warriors, Rockets, Spurs, Thunder, and probably Minnesota are better still). And this is assuming Portland can find a team to take on Myers Leonard’s contract to make a deal work.

What Lillard wanted to get across was that Portland is a great place to be an NBA player.

“I think people talk about what it would be like in Portland or to play in Portland, but actually having lived here, I live here year-round, so I know it’s a great place to live,” Lillard said. “Some of the best food in the United States. You talk about loving the game of basketball, our team and the soccer team are all the city has, so we get a lot of support and our fans really back our team and are really passionate about our team. That type of environment, and that type of love and support around the city, what NBA player wouldn’t want to be a part of that?”

Jimmer Fredette re-signing in China

AP Photo/George Bridges
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Jimmer Fredette played well in China last year, and buzz even emerged about him re-joining the NBA after the Chinese season ended in March. Never happened.

Even in the offseason, when every NBA team had open roster spots, nobody stateside has signed Fredette.

So, he’s returning to the Shanghai Sharks.

Fredette:

Fredette retains a cult following in America, but not the talent of an NBA player. He can score plenty in a lesser league, but his game doesn’t fit with better players on the floor.

Perhaps, he could’ve gotten a training-camp invite, maybe even with a small guarantee. But would’ve faced an uphill battle sticking into the regular season. Better for him to lock into a bigger salary in China now.