If we could get inside the heads of Erik Spoelstra and Gregg Popovich, stick a braincam in there, we would enjoy viewing an additional spectacle during the NBA Finals.
Seemingly polar opposites, Miami Heat coach Spoelstra and San Antonio Spurs coach Popovich have one thing in common: They win.
Spoelstra is pursuing his second title and Popovich his fifth as the Finals bounce to Game 3 in San Antonio on Tuesday with the series tied 1-1. The chess moves they make are underrated by those who say the NBA is a players’ league, as if all the coaches really do is scribble arrows on a clipboard and act as cheerleaders in coats and ties.
That’s an insulting simplification of the nuances of the game and the intellect of the players. In a best-of-7 series with a tricky 2-3-2 format (which teams loathe and TV dictates, by the way) much will turn on the tweaks, adaptations and counterattacks designed by the coaches. When two evenly matched teams play over the course of two weeks, the little things count.
And in Heat vs. Spurs, Spoelstra vs. Popovich, the Finals get a marvelous sideshow.
In Game 3, Popovich has to figure out how to get his Big 3 back on track and reduce the turnover problem caused by Miami’s defense. Spoelstra faces the usual rebound deficit and how to compensate for it, as well as the continued lag in production by two of his Big 3, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Both coaches are basketball lifers who would rather be in the gym working with athletes than anywhere else. But they found their avocation and achieved their success from different angles.
Spoelstra, 42, grew up in Portland, Ore., the son of an NBA executive. He still has the Oregon aura, mocked so astutely and affectionately in Portlandia, the TV show. He was point guard for the University of Portland Pilots, then worked his way up the Heat ladder for 13 years starting as a video coordinator before being named head coach in 2008. He is a Pat Riley protégé.
Popovich, 64, known by all as “Pop,” grew up in a gritty neighborhood near Gary, Ind. He was an Air Force Academy cadet who majored in Soviet studies, then served as an intelligence officer in Turkey. He was part of the Larry Brown coaching tree but has grown a Pop tree of his own.
Spoelstra is accommodating, elaborative, earnest, philosophical. One of the favorite words in the Spoelstraspeak vocabulary is “trust.” He could be a best-selling self-help author or motivational speaker. Picture him reading Ralph Waldo Emerson in a yurt. In another life he was a maharishi teaching his flock about mysticism.
Popovich could pass for a Sears sales associate, but you might not know he’s part-owner of Oregon-based A to Z Wineworks and is a connoisseur of fine food, French cinema and Russian literature. He speaks Serbian.
Popovich is caustic and grumpy. He does not suffer fools gladly. He does not tolerate them at all, in fact. Listen to Popovich and you’re in for a rare treat. In another life, he was a stand-up comedian who abused the crowd.
Asked to explain the Heat’s devastating 35-9 run in Game 2, he replied, “They did a great job.”
He detests the sideline TV interviews required by the league. Once asked his impressions of a first quarter, he said, “None.” Once asked to decipher his team’s shooting inaccuracy, he said, “The ball didn’t go in the hole.” Once asked if he was happy with his team’s shot selection, he said, “Happy? Happy is not a word that we think about in a game. Happy. I don’t know how to judge happy. We’re in the middle of a contest. Nobody’s happy.”
After the Spurs committed just four turnovers in Game 1, Pop was asked how his team managed such clean control: “I don’t know,” he said. “We don’t practice a no-turnover drill.”
He once wiped his sweaty face and nose midinterview by pulling a handkerchief from the pocket of one of TNT reporter Craig Sager’s gaudy suits. He stuffed it back inside without missing a beat.
One time a reporter told Pop it looked like his approach was “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
“OK,” Pop deadpanned in a manner that could not be topped by even Bill Belichick, John Tortorella or Don Shula.
Pop has been overheard motivating his team by saying, ‘The next guy who misses a free throw has to buy me a new car,” or “I want some nasty.”
A female reporter asked him postgame what he meant by “I want some nasty.”
“Why would you say that to me?” Popovich replied with a straight face.
“Because that’s what you said,” she said.
“Oh, I said that?” he said, and Pop watchers noted his smile the same way birdwatchers note rare species on their life lists.
As different as they are, Spoelstra and Popovich believe in the holy grail of team defense. They believe in motivating different personalities with different methods. They believe in the value of instruction. They believe in the beauty of basketball.
And their players want to win for them. Talk to Wade, Tony Parker, Udonis Haslem, Tim Duncan; they have reciprocated the loyalty of their coaches. The best teams have the most passionate teachers.