Erik Spoelstra winning the battle of wits

On the list of series surprises in these Eastern Conference finals, right up there with Chris Bosh emerging as the Heat's most consistent scoring threat, there's Erik Spoelstra having a better coaching run than his Chicago counterpart, Tom Thibodeau.

Anyone have this one? No? Not even any of the crickets I hear chirping?

After the Bulls won Game 1 by 21 points and it looked like we might have a huge coaching mismatch on our hands, it's been Spoelstra whose tweaks have made the bigger impact, resulting in a 2-1 series lead for the Heat. In Game 2 it was his decision to set free Udonis Haslem, resulting in 13 points and five rebounds worth of found money from someone who had played only seven previous minutes in the playoffs.

In Game 3 Spoelstra finally put his arsenal of stars to its best use. He exploited the Bulls' steadfast strategy of loading up the defense on one side to stop LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. Throughout the first two games, that usually meant that if the Heat wanted to beat the defense with ball movement, the stars would have to pass to Mike Bibby or Mario Chalmers. Sunday night, through lineups and positioning, the Heat had it set up so the weakside relief was usually Wade or Chris Bosh.

It kicked in early, when James had the ball on the right side and two additional Bulls defenders rushed his way like security guards swooping in to break up a fight in the stands. James passed across the court to Wade, who now had the opportunity to go one-on-one and made a pull-up jumper. It set the tone for most of the game: James as the quarterback, Wade and Bosh the primary receiving threats. LeBron assisted on 10 of the Heat's 24 field goals that he didn't score himself.

"I was seeing two defenders all night, two or three defenders," James said. "I came into the game knowing that they were going to try to load up on myself and D-Wade. So I just changed my game plan tonight, be more of a facilitator."

The Heat's offensive setup helped. It's as if Spoelstra embraced the fact that for all the pressure and complications brought on by coaching James, Wade and Bosh ... it means you're coaching LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. You don't think Thibodeau would mind having another guy who could be the No. 1 player on most other teams right about now?

"I know it can be a lot worse than this," Spoelstra said. "Come on, I was part of a team that won 15 games."

Spoelstra doesn't enjoy the almost cult-like belief among his players that Thibodeau has. It's rare that you hear players go out of their way to praise their coach the way the Bulls usually do without prompting, to the degree that Derrick Rose said, "We'll be in the locker room and we'll just be talking and we'll catch ourselves: We sound like him. Dang, man, we sound like him. We've got to stop."

On Sunday, the closest any Heat player came to acknowledging Spoelstra was when James said: "I think defensively what we've done all year has worked. We have a system, and we make adjustments at times."

That's a reflection on the coaching staff, even if James didn't say so specifically. Defense has been the closest thing to a constant during this tumultuous Heat season. It was the first thing the team was able to establish while still figuring out who should get the ball ... and when ... and where.

Spoelstra's practices don't get as long or grueling as Pat Riley's were. Riley looms over this franchise, a perceived threat to reclaim the coach's seat whenever things go south (it's more perception than reality, but it's there), but his behind-the-scenes support has strengthened Spoelstra's clout during the season.

"He's kind of been Coach Spo, but he's let the veterans continue to be who they are," Haslem said of his coach. "It's not my-way-or-the-highway type thing. It's, 'We're going to work together, we're going to figure this out, and we're going to do it together.' I think that's the way it had to be when you're bringing in so many different guys from so many different systems."

By being "Coach Spo," Haslem meant that Spoelstra has retained many of the qualities he held as a Heat assistant coach, the ones he developed going back to his beginnings as the team's video coordinator.

"Very intelligent coach," Haslem said. "He's going to prepare you for the game. If you go out there and don't get it done, it's not because you're not going to be prepared. He's one of the best basketball minds that I've been around, and I've been around a few good guys, a few good coaches."

No, Spoelstra doesn't have a commanding presence in the huddle. But the longer these playoffs go and the more success the Heat have, the more clout Spoelstra gains. It will only grow if he can get the best of Thibodeau, the 2010-11 Coach of the Year.

If you had guessed Spoelstra would have a bigger impact on the court than Thibodeau, it would only be because Spoelstra literally spends so much time on the court. While Thibodeau keeps his pacing within that imaginary coach's box on the sidelines, Spoelstra can be found out past the hashmark, even standing on the Eastern Conference finals decal in 3-point territory. Give him credit for staking out his territory. On one play, he was in the way of official Steve Javie, but rather than yell at Spoelstra or serve him up with a technical, which would have been within his rights, Javie simply grabbed Spoelstra by the waist, helped him move to the side, and continued along.

As any coach will tell you (and the ex-coach Hubie Brown reminded me), the guys in the suits look a lot smarter when the guys in the uniforms make baskets. The Heat have made 49 percent of their shots the past two games, while the Bulls have made only 38 percent.

"They're making shots," Thibodeau said. "We have to get up and challenge their shots better. We have to finish our defense."

In other words, it's up to the Bulls and Thibodeau to counter the moves that Spoelstra is making. Because it's taken so long to play the first three games, it's easy to forget that it's still early in the series. There is still time to make adjustments, before the teams become so locked into each other that it becomes strictly a matter of execution. But right now, the clock is ticking louder for Thibodeau, while Spoelstra, after a season's worth of criticism and rumblings, isn't hearing much noise at all.