- Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Staff Writer
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MIAMI -- Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has maintained that the Heat's early-season struggles would make his team more unified. And that seems to have happened between him and star forward LeBron James, but Spoelstra said it took a conversation to get there.
Speaking after Wednesday's practice, Spoelstra said that he had a conversation with James in early December, in the wake of the swirling controversy generated by a bump between the two in the third quarter of a Nov. 27 loss to the Dallas Mavericks. It has been reported that the two met immediately after the incident in November as well.
Nonetheless, Spoelstra said Wednesday that the December meeting was a turning point in their relationship.
"It was a reminder for both of us that we have to manage all the noise outside and keep it to what's real," Spoelstra said. "The only things that matter are the people in the locker room. At the end of the day, a lot of the noise will be pointed in our direction.
"It was probably one of the steps when we started to develop a deeper trust [with each other]. We were in a similar boat together and it wasn't about us. And we needed to be able to manage that and not let it be a distraction."
Spoelstra lauded James' leadership and ability to focus despite the intense media scrutiny that has followed the Heat all season.
"He's been a lightning rod," Spoelstra said. "He's done a very good job of compartmentalizing all of that and to just be a member of the team."
Was Spoelstra surprised with how well James responded to the pressure?
"Probably," Spoelstra said. "Then I started to think about it. This has been new for me. This has been new for a lot of the guys in this gym."
Spoelstra pointed to the horde of reporters surrounding James at Wednesday's practice before continuing.
"This right here is the world that LeBron has been living in since seventh grade," Spoelstra said. "He's used to navigating and negotiating this world. But it was an adjustment for me in November."
Spoelstra is currently in his third season as coach of the Heat.
Since the 10-8 start, the Heat went on a roll, getting a franchise-high 15 wins in the month of December. The Heat finished the regular season with a 58-24 record, good for the second seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The Heat are up 2-0 in their first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers and are set to play Game 3 Thursday night.
Tom Haberstroh covers the NBA for ESPN Insider and ESPN The Magazine.
4hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann