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Self-serious Spoelstra needs to reduce self-created 'noise' going forward

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- LeBron James wants to guard Kevin Durant; that much is clear. This is one challenge James is not dodging.

He couldn't have said it any more bluntly in the past 24 hours, except if he'd just come out and demanded, "Give me Durant." But that is exactly what LeBron has been trying to say, if you understand the passive-aggressive language the Heat use to communicate -- language that comes directly from their head coach.

Erik Spoelstra is a good coach, and by all accounts, a nice guy. But he has a problem here in the NBA Finals, and he needs to do something about it before it's too late.

The problem is, Spoelstra is so hyper-concerned about public perception and criticism -- "noise," he calls it -- that you can't ever tell where the guy is coming from. And if the dutiful scribes and multimedia aficionados and audience members tuning in from coast to coast can't figure out what Spoelstra wants and what he's talking about half the time, imagine how the players feel.

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So if you were expecting Spoelstra to come out and say Wednesday that his tactical idea for Game 1 -- to have James start off possessions on Kendrick Perkins or Nick Collison and then switch all the pick-and-rolls so he'd theoretically wind up on Durant or Russell Westbrook post-screen -- was a mistake, think again. If you were expecting him to come out and say that, yes, my best defensive player would be guarding their best offensive player in Game 2, and let the best man win, then you don't know Erik Spoelstra.

But don't feel bad, because nobody knows Erik Spoelstra -- or at least, nobody knows the robot who marches into pre- and post-game press conferences pretending to be Erik Spoelstra.

Specific defensive assignments and planned substitution patterns can be considered proprietary, competitive information, so on some level it's understandable why Spoelstra wouldn't tip his hand. He acts like a football coach, either not disclosing injuries or being vague about them -- like a basketball version of Bill Belichick saying with a straight face that his kick returner has an "injury to his body."

Maybe the NBA should take a page from the NFL and require coaches to list players on an injury report, although I'm afraid in many cases that would only put the deceit in writing.

On the other hand, it's difficult to separate Spoelstra's pursuit of competitive advantage from his Pat Riley-inspired mission to obfuscate at every turn. Why, for example, Spoelstra couldn't simply say before Game 1 that James Jones was unavailable because he had a migraine is pure silliness. Spoelstra himself admitted that he wouldn't mind telling Oklahoma City, but he just wasn't going to say it in a press conference. Why not?

"I don't think it's a competitive advantage," Spoelstra said. "I just, [it's] one of the few times that hopefully we can control a little bit of the noise out there. We don't have to get into the debate about the pluses or minuses about it before the game. The guys can just focus in, get into their iPads and focus on the game."

As if the guys are gathered in the players' lounge watching the pre-game press conference.

This "noise" Spoelstra refers to constantly has become noise generated only by him. Immediately after the Heat lost Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Celtics at home, this was Spoelstra's opening statement in the postgame press conference:

"OK, it's a loss, and that's all it is," he said. "And that's what our focus is right now, is to fight any kind of noise from the outside or any human condition, and to collectively come together strong to prepare for the next game."

This was before word one had been written or question one had been asked. This was noise from a coach seemingly trying to drown out noise that was only flowing through his own microphone.

It's pointless, and Spoelstra's abrasiveness and tightly wound personality aren't going to stop Durant from getting all the shots he wants and scoring 17 points in the fourth quarter again. Only LeBron can do that. And in that respect, this is like the 2011 Finals all over again. Against Dallas, by the time Spoelstra decided to put James on Dirk Nowitzki in the fourth quarter, the Heat already were down 3-2 and on their way to losing Game 6 -- and the series -- at home.

Without home-court advantage in the 2-3-2 format, there's even less time for adjustments this time around. Durant, Westbrook and the Thunder are too good for Miami to bank on winning three straight at home. Spoelstra tried a tactical approach in Game 1 that had sound reasoning behind it, but it didn't work. It's time to change, put the best defensive player on Oklahoma City's best offensive player when the game is on the line, and stop being so defensive about everything.

"Coach gave us an idea for Game 1, and we went with it," said James, who'd pointed out after the game Tuesday night that it "wasn't my choice."

To his credit, Spoelstra admitted that the approach of switching all the screen-and-rolls "possibly" took some bite out of Miami's usually active defense. The approach "flattened out some of our aggressiveness," Spoelstra said, which is fine. But what is he going to do about it?

Well, first, Spoelstra was going to launch into a strident diatribe about how the game "was not decided by schematics," and rattle off a laundry list of coach-speak buzzwords in an attempt to describe what did decide the game -- things like "force," "will" and "energy." "Noise from the "outside" was not mentioned, so at least Spoelstra can rest assured that aspect of his game plan worked.

I asked Spoelstra if maybe -- just maybe -- all the "noise" he's been yapping about actually wouldn't exist if not for him constantly bringing it up. He seemed caught on his heels by the question, but quickly gathered himself to deliver more psycho-babble.

"I don't think so, no," he said. "I mean, I think we've been able to compartmentalize pretty well. We weren't trying to create any drama. That was obviously going to be a big topic, but we've gotten into the habit of not discussing the pros and cons and the benefits and the negatives before it actually happens. We want our guys to just focus on the game."

Just when he seemed finished with his lecture, Spoelstra threw away a line at the end that pretty much summed up his self-serious approach.

"We live in a different world probably than most teams," he said.

So the Heat live in a different world than the Kobe-Shaq Lakers of the 2000s or the Celtics of the Big Three era, both of whom preferred turning up the noise and reveling in it rather than constantly generating their own?

The simple fact beneath all of this is that LeBron needs to guard Durant, the way he guarded Derrick Rose in last year's conference finals and the way he should've guarded Nowitzki in last year's Finals. Not for 48 minutes or 46 minutes, mind you, because that's the other problem -- LeBron is playing too many minutes. Durant is like a 6-10 version of Ray Allen the way he moves without the ball, and admittedly, this is a different challenge than bear-wrestling with Paul Pierce or locking in on Rose, who always has the ball in his hands.

But James has always prided himself in his versatility, his ability to guard positions 1-5 on the floor. Each challenge is unique, and the challenge of slowing down Durant is perhaps the most unique of all. But if that's what's required to win this series, and to give James the best shot at his first championship, so be it. James had said after his incredible 45-point, 15-rebound performance when facing elimination in Game 6 of the conference finals in Boston, "I won't regret Game 7." And he didn't. So I asked him Wednesday if he could get through this series with no regrets if the buck did not stop with him defensively on Durant -- specifically in the fourth quarter, when he needs to be stopped.

"Well, this is one game," James said. "We will make adjustments. This is going to be a long series. I'm not worried about the end of the series right now."

As I said, Spoelstra's tactical ability as a coach is not at issue. The widespread criticism of him during the Celtics series -- about him getting outcoached by Doc Rivers -- was unfair on a couple of levels. First, the Heat eventually won the series for the reasons that win most series -- the performance of the players. Second, everyone gets outcoached by Doc Rivers.

So Spoelstra doesn't need any lessons in schematic adjustments or game-planning, least of all from me. But he does need to learn something else from a coach like Rivers. If you're so tightly wound and paranoid that you can't even say that one of your players has a headache, how tight is your necktie when you're addressing your team?

If Spoelstra fails to make the adjustments needed to get Game 2, then he's fair game for criticism on that front. But if all the noise is getting in his way, Spoelstra only has himself to blame.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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