By Bill Reiter
MIAMI – Fair or not, Erik Spoelstra just reopened a conversation that LeBron James and Co. seemed hellbent on pushing this past November.
Namely: Is the young head coach the right man to lead this basketball team?
Asked about his teamâ€™s frustration level following a 99-96 loss to the Orlando Magic Thursday night that included blowing a 24-point lead, Spoelstra offered an outwardly calm mien.
“Iâ€™m sure thatâ€™s the normal human condition,” he said. “Of course, if you experience something like this and you’re not getting the result you want, it’s frustrating. But there’s only two options for us. We can collapse or continue to stay the course. It has not broken us, so eventually we will respond.”
No, it hasn’t broken them, but itâ€™s come close. So close, in fact, that November’s follies led to a leaked report at the time saying Heat players wanted Spoelstra out as coach.
Which makes for a third option: Spoelstra takes the fall and then the Heat either collapse or donâ€™t without him.
I, for one, still believe Spoelstra can be the right coach. Given how late it is in the season, heâ€™ll almost certainly get the chance to prove it.
But that report from November, which clearly stemmed from the LeBron camp, was the height of the anti-Spoelstra rhetoric that shaped the early season. It also highlighted how hard the road can become for Spoelstra when things sour.
Which they surely did Thursday night.
Back then, it was a December winning streak that bought him the time, and in many cases the respect, he badly needed.
He needs another such streak now.
Because this latest letdown was painful. Painful enough to unleash bad feelings, disabling doubt and talk of whoâ€™s to blame upon this team. That means Spoelstra is back on the hot seat, with fans, with the media and almost certainly with his players.
Despite some peculiarities â€” including an uneven rotation that sometimes seems to border on panic and an inability to manage big leads â€” Spoelstra remains a promising young coach.
Heâ€™s managed LeBron very well this year, a task Iâ€™d imagine is far from easy. Heâ€™s dealt with injuries and a wobbly roster with aplomb and heâ€™s kept his cool during rough stretches.
There have been plenty of coaching slipups, including several Thursday. First and foremost among them designing a play at the end of Thursday’s game that had Bosh as the second option for a game-tying 3-pointer. Which, of course, he missed.
But there have been several well-managed moments while leading a circus full of drama and stress.
And there was plenty more blame to go around Thursday at American Airlines Arena.
Mario Chalmers seemed to work tirelessly to mark the bench as his personal territory. He was 2 of 11 from the field, and 1 of 6 from the 3-point line, while demonstrating just why Miami fans so warmly welcomed Mike Bibby to the floor.
At one point, with the Heat still well up, the home fans chanted, “Mario sucks.”
Chris Bosh did another big-game disappearing act. He had one first-half rebound and shot 5-of-15 from the field, finishing with 13 points.
Mike Miller seemed trigger-shy until the very end, and the rest of the Heat bench, if not awful, could certainly be said to be barely present.
Dwyane Wade and LeBron James were magnificent while combining for 57 points on 21-of-34 shooting and proving two things: They are in no way the primary problem, despite a weak fourth quarter from both of them. And they are, great as they may be, in no way enough.
Which brings us to the roster Pat Riley, not Erik Spoelstra, put together. It is clearly a year from being championship-ready. Today, in no order, the Heat rank below the NBAâ€™s other elite teams: the Lakers, Bulls, Spurs, Mavericks and Celtics.
Thatâ€™s not where this team was supposed to be. But itâ€™s also not Spoelstraâ€™s fault.
Still, the Heatâ€™s Thursday debacle ranks among their worst losses of the year, a source of severe embarrassment, a sign of a lack of heart and a reminder theyâ€™re not ready yet to dethrone a team like Boston.
Which still leaves Erik Spoelstra dangling in the wind.
The Heat are now 0-2 in a stretch of 11 straight games against playoff-bound teams. Next comes a very difficult tail end of a back-to-back Friday night at San Antonio. Then a home game Sunday against the vaunted Chicago Bulls. Then games Tuesday and Thursday against Portland and the Lakers.
The Heat entered this stretch primed to prove that they can beat good teams.
After Thursday, Spoelstra may have to prove he should coach one.