Dave Hyde: Spoelstra vs. Mazzulla looked like Belichick vs. Philbin in Heat’s Game 1 stunner

·4 min read

Jimmy Butler was the star of Game 1.

But Erik Spoelstra may be the bigger story.

Butler had the basketball in his hands almost every fourth-quarter possession for the Miami Heat in Wednesday’s Eastern Conference Finals opener in one of those sun-rises-in-the-East moments. He’s the star. Of course he gets the ball. He filled up the box score in the Heat’s 123-116 win, too. Coaching 101, right?

Except on the other side Boston’s Jayson Tatum took no shots in the fourth quarter. He didn’t even get the ball for so many minutes down the stretch TNT announcer Stan Van Gundy began saying, “Another possession without Tatum getting the ball.”

That was stunning. But it didn’t even put the best spotlight on the Heat’s biggest advantage to pull off an upset in the series. That came as the Heat hung a defining 46-point third quarter like artwork to leap-frog a nine-point deficit at halftime and seize control of the game.

They shot 65 percent in the quarter. They made 6-of-8 3-point shots. It was the most points in any playoff quarter in franchise history. The Big Three. The 2006 champs. Zo and Timmy. Any of them.

It started with a 7-0 run that quarter and finished with an 11-4 run, and as amazing as the Heat played the more amazing part was Boston rookie coach Joe Mazzulla’s part in it. He did nothing. He didn’t even throw a time-out at the Heat to try to break their run. Not one.

“I took two in the first quarter,’’ he said when asked about that.

Uh, OK. But that third quarter?

“Don’t call two in the first quarter,’’ he said. “Save it for the third-quarter run.”

Here’s the larger question: If Boston can’t get such elemental facets of NBA strategy right, what is it missing in the larger calculus of NBA coaching? What strings is a championship coach like Spoelstra pulling to affect the texture of the game that mortal minds can’t detect?

Boston a great 3-point shooting team, but took just 29 such shots Wednesday (Mazzulla says he wants 40 a game). Was that the Heat running their shooters off the 3-point line? Just a one-game aberration?

Boston also had a 24-point advantage on points in the paint in the first half as they used their size and Marcus Smart’s adept passing (nine assists in the half). But the Heat had a two-point advantage in that department in the second half and Smart had just two assists. Was that adjustments made by the Heat? Just part of Boston’s second-half meltdown?

One more coaching game like this and those flat-voweled, hard-shelled Bostonians will turn on their home team. They began to Wednesday with drips and drabs of boos.

Game 1 dredged up ghastly memories of Bill Belichick versus former Dolphins coach Joe Philbin. Only this Miami team had Belichick. The New England Patriots coach fittingly watched Wednesday’s game with Celtics general manager Brad Stevens.

He had to be thinking: So this is what it feels like to be on the other sideline of the Patriots’ 28-3 comeback in the Super Bowl against Atlanta.

NBA coaching only gets you so far, of course. Spoelstra can’t win games. Butler had 35 points to go with his box-score potpourri of five rebounds, seven assists and six steals. Everything went through him again in Game 1.

“You know, there’s just a settling effect that is impossible to quantify,” Spoelstra said of Butler. “Like, all right, we are in striking distance. Let’s just settle into our game and Jimmy will make a bunch of plays.”

But Spoelstra’s fingerprints, as he likes to say, were all over this game. Undrafted players Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent and Max Strus each had 15 points in Game 1. That’s developmental work, role definition and all the coaching aspects that are part of the trademarked Heat Culture.

As Spoelstra said of this night, “This is who we try to be. But, look, when I say it’s easier said than done, it’s easier said than done.”

Boston remains a formidable talent. But it underwent a coaching change before the season that left games like his in the hands of a 34-year-old coach with no head-coaching experience. Would you sit on a plane with the guy who was great on a flight simulator?

Mazzulla did, finally, call a time-out with three minutes left in the game and did, finally, put the ball in Tatum’s hands (or Tatum finally took the ball). The Boston star bungled it from there, actually traveling on successive possessions, which must be an NBA record. You want to win or lose with your best players. Boston finally did.

The biggest Heat advantage played out in Game 1. Spoelstra was Belichick. Mazzulla was Philbin. The question moving forward is if this was a one-game blunder by a rookie coach or becomes a repeating issue this series.