MIAMI — Pat Riley’s 34th playoff victory as coach of the Miami Heat brought the franchise’s first championship. If Erik Spoelstra got his 34th playoff victory in this year’s NBA Finals, Miami would have another title.
That’s just one of many parallels between Riley — the patriarch of the Heat sideline — and Spoelstra, his hand-picked successor.
Spoelstra has been part of the Heat organization since 1995, so there’s no shortage of ideas and ideals he’s taken from Riley along those years. But those who would know say Spoelstra is far from simply being a clone of the man who still watches over the Heat from the president’s office.
“The game part of it, I think Spo does his own thing there,” Boston coach Doc Rivers said. “But definitely, the mental part of it, just listening to how he talks and prepares a team, the Riley fingerprints are all over that part. I mean, if you play for Riley or work around Riley, he’s going to be a part of you for the rest of your life. That’s just how it is.”
For the Heat, it seems to be working.
Four Spoelstra seasons, four winning records, four playoff appearances and now two trips to the finals, with Game 3 of this year’s title series Sunday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder. His path is well-known — start in the team’s video room, eventually become an assistant coach, take over as coach when Riley retired for the second time, and after two seasons on the job see Miami land LeBron James and Chris Bosh to play alongside Dwyane Wade.
Not bad for the guy who didn’t think Riley knew his name when he first arrived.
“Spo has been great,” said James, the NBA’s reigning MVP. “I mean, he’s been challenged the last two years by a lot of people, but I think he’s been awesome. Two straight finals appearances, and he’s put us in position to win each and every game. … We understand what we like, our dislikes, everything of that nature, but he’s been great. He’s going to continue to grow, and I hope I can continue to grow around him.”
Spoelstra certainly has been challenged by a lot of people — his two best players included.
When James and Spoelstra bumped into one another during a game at Dallas in November 2010, it became a story line for months. When Dwyane Wade started shouting at Spoelstra during a timeout huddle against Indiana in this year’s playoffs, that incident became perhaps as talked about as the outcome of the game itself.
For his part, Spoelstra shrugged both off, and quickly. By now, Wade would have expected nothing less.
“Yeah, something was made of that blow-up in Indiana, but that shows how our relationship has grown,” Wade said. “We’ve been together a long time. You don’t have those kind of moments if you haven’t been together. It’s just like family members, just like a brother. We have moments, but we love each other and we move on from it, we grow from it. That’s the way we are. That’s the way our team is.”
Spoelstra has his way of handling it all. He isn’t ashamed about latching on to certain words or phrases and repeating them incessantly — outside expectations are referred to as “noise,” the favorite game plan is called “playing to our identity,” what gets talked about behind closed doors is “our truth” and questions about why one player gets minutes over another usually elicits an answer of “the rotation is the rotation.”
Somehow, he can mix being gregarious and guarded at the same time.
“It’s not that I don’t take other people’s opinions,” said Spoelstra, who took a 31-22 career playoff record into Sunday night. “But if you haven’t walked in these shoes, it’s tough to have the proper perspective.”
There was speculation earlier in these playoffs that Spoelstra, who received a three-year contract before this season began, would be in serious trouble if Miami had been beaten by Indiana or Boston in the final two rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Internally, there was no sense of Spoelstra being on the so-called hot seat. Both Riley and Heat owner Micky Arison — who rarely speak publicly about the team in-season — have raved about the job Spoelstra has done since his first season, and Arison took to Twitter earlier in these finals to point out Spoelstra is among a small group of coaches who have taken their teams to back-to-back finals appearances in the last 25 years.
“He’s been more open this year, allowing some players to voice their opinion on certain situations, at practice or in a game, no matter what the magnitude of the game is,” James said. “We trust him and he trusts us. At the end of the day, he has the last call because he is the head coach, but as a player you love that fact when a coach wants to hear or wants to feel what you may see out on the floor during the game or during the film session. He’s been awesome.”
Spoelstra doesn’t bristle at the Riley comparisons. (“Noise,” it would fall under in his vernacular.)
He also doesn’t complain about having a Hall of Fame coach with seven championship rings on his resume around the office every day. Some would call that intimidating. Spoelstra calls it a gift.
“In terms of Pat, we talk all the time. All the time,” Spoelstra said. “It’s almost as if he’s a member on my staff. If I’m not calling him, if I’m not bumping into him at the office, I’m texting him. Our dialogue has been very good. It’s most relevant with a team like this. He’s walked in my shoes before.”
And both of them have walked on the same sideline, on the same stage.
The finals. Four years ago, Riley said Spoelstra was ready. Get four wins in this series, Riley will be proven right.
“Riley was Riley for a reason,” Rivers said. “He gets inside of you. And you can see that with Erik. Riley’s inside of him.”