MANILA, Philippines – Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra commended NBA superstar LeBron James for his willingness to change and adapt his game in an effort to help the Heat in their quest for the NBA championship.
Miami Heat's LeBron James (R) hugs head coach Erik Spoelstra near the end of Game 5 of the NBA basketball finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Miami, Florida, June 21, 2012. Photo by Mike Segar, Reuters.
James, who is listed at 6-foot-8 and over 260 pounds, played inside the post more and more this season, and became the linchpin for the Heat’s “pace-and-space” offense.
"We had to work together, but he was the biggest driving force in that," Spoelstra said in an exclusive interview with ABS-CBN's TJ Manotoc. "He had the same attitude as us."
"Once he got over the pain of the (2011) Finals, he decided that he was going to have to improve and add new layers and dimensions to his game," he added.
In the 2011 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, James was widely criticized for "disappearing" in the crucial moments of the games, as he was uncharacteristically passive during the fourth quarter, especially in Games 4 and 5.
The Mavericks won the championship in six games, and the Heat – especially James – endured a prolonged off-season of mockery and criticism from basketball fans and media.
But it was also during the off-season that the Heat and James decided to take their game to the next level.
Spoelstra visited with several different coaches in order to create an offensive system that would maximize the Heat's advantages in speed and athleticism, while James spent time with legendary big man Hakeem Olajuwon, who won two championships with the Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995.
"He went to meet with Hakeem Olajuwon, and he came back in training camp after the lockout, he was like a new player," Spoelstra said.
The coach insisted that James' workouts with Olajuwon was the player’s idea.
"All we talked about in our final meeting was, we're going to have to develop a post-game for us to take another step forward," Spoelstra said. "He not only embraced it; he took that to a whole other level and he sought out help."
"That's part of LeBron's greatness."
After eight seasons wherein James mostly played around the perimeter, he learned to spend more time inside the post, and it paid off: James averaged 27.1 points on a career high 53% shooting, along with a career-high 7.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game. He was named regular season MVP for the third time in his career.
|Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra celebrates after his team won the championship by defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of the NBA basketball finals in Miami, Florida, June 21, 2012. Photo by Mike Segar, Reuters.
In the post-season – especially in the Finals – James was even better. He had one of the all-time great playoff performances of all time in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics, tallying 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists.
For the second straight season, the Heat advanced to the NBA Finals. This time, they got the job done, beating the Oklahoma City Thunder in five exciting games.
In the Finals, James averaged 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game. His improved post game was at its most devastating in Game 5, when he posted a triple double (26 points, 11 rebounds, 13 assists).
James was also stellar on the defensive end, often drawing the assignment of guarding Thunder scoring machine Kevin Durant.
For his exploits, "King James" was named Finals MVP.
"He never stays comfortable," Spoelstra said of James. "You're talking about the best player in the game, and he always wants to add something new every off-season."
"By the time he got back to training camp, we felt we got a new player – somebody who was really going to help us play a different style of basketball from the year before," he said.
In Game 5, when Miami closed out the Thunder, James easily got position deep in the post, often forced a double team, and made the correct pass to the open man behind the three-point line or a teammate cutting to the basket.
Because of the attention that James drew, his teammates got easy, wide-open shots; Mike Miller alone converted seven of his eight attempts from beyond the arc for 23 points.
"In terms of style of play, for us to take another step forward offensively as a team, we would need that component of him playing inside the post, much like a big man," Spoelstra explained. "So we could play inside-out and get easier baskets."
In a story by ESPN's Tom Haberstroh, it was revealed that James originally did not enjoy the new style, which forces him to tangle with the larger players in the NBA, and took away his natural size advantage in the perimeter.
"I was a perimeter guy my whole life... I wouldn't say it's fun. It's never fun banging with big men. Nothing fun about it," James told Haberstroh at the time.
But by the time the play-offs rolled around, James was clearly more comfortable in his new role, wherein he was a hybrid of a point guard and a power forward.
Spoelstra is thankful that James not only agreed to adapt his game to suit the Heat’s new system, but also because his willingness to work rubbed off on his teammates.
"He's the best player in the game," Spoelstra emphasized. "And when your player does that, it sets an incredible tone for the rest of the organization." -- With a report from TJ Manotoc, ABS-CBN News.