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Steve Aschburner

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Erik Spoelstra (left) and Scott Brooks have two teams built in totally different ways.
Jesse D. Garrabrant, Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

It's not LeBron vs. KD, but Brooks-Spoelstra worth watching


Posted Jun 12 2012 11:43AM

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Matchups like this one do not come along every spring.

They are the best the Eastern and Western conferences have to offer. One has achieved the highest individual honor possible in his chosen field, while the other has statistics to die for on his side of the ledger.

They are Scott Brooks and Erik Spoelstra, coaches of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat.

[Insert sound effects here: A needle scratching violently across a record. Breaking glass. The squeal of brakes, followed by the percussion of bumper against bumper. An obnoxiously loud buzzer.]

Obviously, Brooks vs. Spoelstra is not the matchup NBA fans have been drooling about for The Finals. This isn't college basketball, where the martinets strutting the sidelines all but issue strict orders to the fellows who man the spotlights, cameras and microphones.

The Finals this year is all about talent and potential and stars. It's about LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant, the three-time MVP facing the three-time scoring champion in a showdown of arguably the league's two best players. It's about their supremely gifted "sidekicks" -- Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook -- and the difference that maturity and experience can make.

It's about two championship-worthy teams built on diametrically opposed philosophies. OKC, though the up 'n' comers, went about things the old-fashioned way, with shrewd scouting and drafting, surgically precise acquisitions via trade and a crafty free-agent pickup on the fringes. Miami is a new-millennium, Wall Street strip-and-flip.

Brooks and Spoelstra? Going by a lot of the coverage and even more by public perception, they're innocent bystanders -- the term Wade used for Spoelstra last month when asked about criticism of his coach. Of course, Wade was the one who focused that criticism, laser-like, on Spoelstra by engaging in a snit on the Heat bench in Game 3 of the Indiana series. It was the ultimate superstar privilege, making the coach look bad and then pulling him back into the boat afterward.

"I think coaches always get a bad rap," Wade said then. "It's unfair a lot of times. Whenever something goes wrong, the first thing you point at is, 'Get the coach out of there.' "

Going in at least, Brooks and Spoelstra are accidental tourists on the sidelines. Over the course of four, five or six games, no doubt, the analysis and feature coverage of the series will reveal both coaches' worthiness. But at the moment, prior to any moves, counter-moves and 'tween-game adjustments, it's as if someone hung a sign on this Finals: No Geniuses Involved. The two guys who held that title in the conference championships the past two weeks, San Antonio's Greg Popovich and Boston's Doc Rivers, were dispatched by younger guys with smaller reputations but superior teams.

Even now, the surest way for Brooks or Spoelstra to get noticed in The Finals is to lose. Lose a game and the tongues will wag, the knives will be pulled and a bunch of experts who write for Web sites and fishwrappers will pounce. Lose the series and there will be some -- especially within that team's fan base -- who demand a coaching change.

If James and Durant enter this championship round as the NBA's top two players, Brooks and Spoelstra come in as the two young coaches who get the least credit and the most blame (with the Clippers' Vinny Del Negro already on a golf course).

As Jeff Van Gundy, the former coach who will work the Finals for ABC, said in a media conference call: " 'Who's to blame?' On Oklahoma City, it always falls the same way. When they lose, it's Brooks and Westbrook. When the Heat lose, it's James and Spoelstra."

The other formerly coaching Van Gundy, Stan, talked about the same thing on "The Dan LeBatard Show" on Miami sports radio the other day: "Once you've won a championship, then you're immune to any criticism. You cannot make a bad coaching move. Anything you do is fine. And it's something else. Until you win a championship, then it's the coach's fault."

Spoelstra had done a nice job as Miami president Pat Riley's hand-picked protégé, finishing above .500 and reaching the playoffs in his first two seasons. But when Riley went shopping in July 2010 and brought back both James and Chris Bosh, the expectations soared. Along with the intense scrutiny.

"I know the profession I'm in," Spoelstra said a few days after his confrontation with Wade.

Brooks has heard it, too -- or if he hasn't, those around him have heard the questions, wondering if he was clever enough as an Xs & Os man to tap the deep talent reservoir handed to him by Thunder general manager Sam Presti.

Brooks, by personality, is low key. If you didn't know he was a California kid, you'd think he was corn-fed and Midwest-reared almost by design for this job in Oklahoma. You can detect a little gel or mousse or something in his dirty blond hair during games, but he has none of Spoelstra's Joel Osteen-like televangelist style on the sideline.

His coaching tree isn't as grand as the other guy's, but it is strong, reflecting so much of the coaches for whom he played and worked, from Bill Musselman, Dick Motta and Jim Lynam to Rudy Tomjanovich, Mike Fratello and, yes, Jeff Van Gundy. Brooks played 11 seasons in the NBA, maxing out as a player a couple levels beyond Spoelstra. But the Heat coach was a grinder in his own right, burning midnight oil as Riley's longtime video coordinator.

Each has a staff of assistants he trusts and leans on. And each had praise for the other Monday on the eve of the Finals. "I have a lot of respect," Brooks said of his Miami counterpart. "It's not always easy."

Said Spoelstra: "Scott has been a big part of [the Thunder's development] in terms of the culture and the philosophy of how hard they play and the things that they do. They're well coached."

Geniuses at this point or not, one of these guys in a couple of weeks is going to have a ring and all sorts of newfound job security. The other guy will always have the Van Gundys.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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