MIAMI – Players score (or in the case of the Miami Heat in Game 4 against Boston, they have trouble scoring), they defend and make plays that determine the outcome.
The NBA is – and has been – a players’ league. NBA coaches, unlike their college counterparts, are secondary.
But the value of great coaching should not be underestimated, and the two coaches in the Eastern Conference finals (Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Boston’s Ime Udoka) are putting in the work, especially between games when their team is coming off a loss.
Both have made adjustments while dealing with injuries to key players.
Win or lose, Spoelstra is fired up coaching in this series. He doesn’t make an attempt to hide his fiery disposition when talking with reporters.
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"Our guys love competition and our team has proven that we have a bunch of different ways that we can find a solution to get a win," he said. "We can do it in the mud. We can win it ugly. We can win it when the floodgates come open hitting 3s. We can do it with Jimmy (Butler) taking over a game. We can do it when he's facilitating. We have the mental fortitude and the collective toughness to be able to embrace what we have."
Udoka is more subdued in his press conferences but you see his intensity in-game, especially when he isn’t happy with the way his team is playing.
In a conference finals that’s 2-2 with Game 5 Wednesday in Miami (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), you can’t count on much – certainly not consistency – but you can expect the losing team in the most recent game to respond with improved play in the next game, and Spoelstra and Udoka have had a strong influence in those bounce-back games with their adjustments and game-planning.
It’s not a surprise. Spoelstra was a finalist for Coach of the Year, finishing third, and Udoka finished fourth.
Spoelstra, who has won two championships and coached in five NBA Finals, should have at least one Coach of the Year award to his name. If anyone thinks it was easy coaching LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, they are mistaken, especially when Spoelstra had to convince each player to play differently and manage egos. And James had some of his best, most efficient seasons with Miami.
Spoelstra is well regarded throughout the league by other coaches who praise his strategy and ability to make in-game decisions in the moment.
While he doesn’t have a coach of the year aware, he was named earlier this season as one of the 15 greatest coaches of all-time.
While he’s still coaching, Spoelstra doesn’t care about any recognition. He is focused on winning another title, and this is a challenging series. The Heat are facing an excellent defensive and sometimes excellent offensive team and dealing with injuries. Kyle Lowry and Tyler Herro have missed games in the series, and Jimmy Butler is not 100%.
After the Heat lost Game 2 127-102, Spoelstra and his staff went to work, focused on finding ways for center Bam Adebayo to have more impact offensively. It worked. Adebayo had his best game of the series.
Veteran Heat center Udonis Haslem, 41, has been with the Heat since 2003, covering three championships. He has been a part of each Spoelstra-coached Heat team and has watched him coach the team to sweeps and comebacks from 3-2 series deficits in the conference and NBA Finals.
"Spo has the ability to pivot and make adjustments on the fly," Haslem said. "That’s when he feels most involved, most challenged, most excited. It’s ability to not be stubborn and also listen to the input of the guys on the court. It’s not my way or the highway."
Udoka, a first-time head coach, is far behind Spoelstra in experience, but he learned from one of the best as an assistant for Gregg Popovich with San Antonio.
Udoka has been impressive in his first season – after an 18-21 start. Boston’s season had a chance to go sideways, and it wasn’t easy taking over a team with championship expectations. Udoka stuck to his defensive and offensive philosophies (getting stops with strong perimeter and interior defense and ball movement from his talented offensive players).
He isn’t afraid to let players know what he is thinking, and he has no problem criticizing his team’s shortcomings to the media. If you’ve learned anything about Udoka during this playoff run it’s that he despises when players dribble into to traffic and commit turnovers.
He has also earned the respect of players.
"Just building a relationship throughout the season and the ups and downs that we've had," Celtics star Jayson Tatum said. "That all brought us a lot closer. Just grinding it out. Everybody stuck with each other throughout the season, even in those tough times early on, and even when we lose games, he does a really good job of just obviously telling us what we did wrong and what we need to do better. But making sure everybody believes in ourselves in the group and getting ready for the next one."
Udoka, too, has had to make adjustments, and like Spoelstra, he has dealt with injuries. Defensive player of the year Marcus Smart missed two games, and Robert Williams missed one.
Those turnovers hurt the Celtics in their Game 1 and Games 3 losses. Udoka and his staff spent time going over those turnovers, and his players responded each time. When the Celtics are moving the basketball and not turning it over, they are tough to beat. They’ve yet to show that consistency though.
His task is to find a way for the Celtics to string two consecutive solid games – as they did against Milwaukee – and beat Miami. The challenge gets even bigger when Spoelstra is on the opposite bench.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Heat’s Erik Spoelstra, Celtics’ Ime Udoka shine in NBA Eastern finals