(AP Photo/John Bazemore)
The most difficult aspect of success lies in the attempts to replicate it. Once I’ve succeeded, I have to do it again. The mental toughness needed to beat a team twice in 4 days is not innate. It is learned. It is developed. The young Atlanta Hawks stubbed their collective toe on this night and there is a great lesson to be learned from it.
The atmosphere at Phillips Arena was more jubilant than that of the first game. Casual fans shed their “fashionably late” routines and filled their seats in anticipation of another Hawks victory. Every early basket elicited roars and every early Heat possession the requisite boos. That friskiness soon turned to concern as the Hawks fell behind by as much as 18 points. The team that dominated on Sunday did not take the court and neither did the team that they so completely manhandled. This would turn out to be a whole different ball game.
The types of things that Atlanta thrives on: energy from the home crowd, emotional highs from alley oop dunks or power slams, backbreaking three point bombs, were far too few on this night. The visitors from Miami were able to take the air out of the ball, dictate a slower, more methodical tempo and thus stymie the high flying offense of Joe Johnson (16 points on 5-13 shooting with 4 turnovers), Mike Bibby (18 points and 4 assists) and Josh Smith (17 points and 10 rebounds).
I asked Miami Heat Head Coach Eric Spoelstra to comment on the differences in approach from Game 1 to Game 2.
Jerold Wells Jr., TSF: “The turnaround from Game 1 was immediate. How did you slow the Hawks down?”
Coach Spoelstra: “Our spacing, execution, and shooting all improved this game. Jermaine O’Neal also played a big part in what we did tonight as well. He was patient, made good decisions with the ball and trusted his teammates. We were able to control tempo and pace by playing through him and making some shots.” “We played our normal pace. I think in Game 1 we may have been too juiced and got out rhythm, even on defense. And, again, we made shots tonight and that helps our fast break defense.”
I also asked Coach Spoelstra about the job his defense did against Joe Johnson and Josh Smith.
JW: “The defense on Joe and Josh was much better. How did you approach them differently?”
ES: “We have a guy on our roster (Dwyane Wade) that was 3rd in the DPOY voting. I think he’s a good choice to guard any perimeter player in this league. We made a decision to spend the majority of the minutes with our best player on their best player and I think he rose to the challenge. Some late foul trouble interrupted that but Jamario (Moon) filled in very nicely after that.”
The referees (Dan Crawford, Jason Phillips and Ken Mauer) were very much involved in the game, blowing their whistles early and often. As a result both Joe Johnson and Dwyane Wade found themselves in foul trouble but only the Hawks would feel the bite of playing without their best player. Wade would score enough points while he was one the floor to offset any potential Hawks advantage while he sat. The foul situation also helped keep the game at what seemed to be a snail’s pace. Whenever Atlanta did find a spark, Miami would answer right back; more times than not those sparks were doused by Dwyane Wade.
I also asked Dwyane to talk about the turnaround from Game 1 to Game 2.
DW: “We got into the fight early. We were physical. Udonis and Jermaine did a good job getting rebounds and playing tough. At one point I think someone even dove on the floor.” “Also, our offense helped our defense. We limited turnovers and made some shots tonight. I personnally focused on making the shots that they gave me in the first game.”
The Miami Heat took a step in the right direction. Falling is nothing. Getting back up is difficult. Game 2 presented an opportunity for the Heat to correct wrongs, start new, and revisit the strengths that carried them to the postseason. They met that challenge and passed with flying colors.
Coach Eric Spoelstra spoke a great deal after Game One about the ways his team needed to improve before the nest contest. He talked about patient offense, more support from shooters and posts, and better team defense. After Game 2 those words seemed almost prophetic.
It also helps when you have a player capable of raising his game and leading his teammates. Dwyane Wade’s supreme confidence and permeates this entire team. Jermaine O’Neal played well, Deaquan Cook made six three pointers, and Udonis Haslem made his presence felt in this contest. Coach Spoelstra gives instruction, Wade translates, and this team follows. As he goes, they go.
If this contest shows anything it shows us that nothing is guaranteed. Each game of this series is going to be a battle of wills. Both teams have players capable of erupting for large scoring, rebounding or assist totals. Both teams have the ability to lock in defensively and completely befuddle the other. Entertainment is certain for the duration of the series. I asked Wade to give me one thing that they would take home to build off of after this win.
JW: “Give me one thing you would like to carry over into the next two games in Miami.”
DW: “Our start. We do well as a team when we start well, play smart and play with energy. We have to have passion and fight also. There are no guarantees (because of home court). We have to play hard and earn those wins.”