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Steve Aschburner

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Coach Erik Spoelstra got LeBron James to buy into a gameplan that led both men to the NBA title.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Spoelstra, like LeBron, rises above critics to claim title


Posted Jun 22 2012 1:24PM

MIAMI -- Looks like the Miami Heat are stuck with Erik Spoelstra now.

That shoulder bump with LeBron James last season couldn't knock Spoelstra from his job as Miami Heat coach. The team's flop against Dallas in the 2011 Finals didn't get him gone, and neither did Dwyane Wade's testy snarl on the sideline in Indianapolis a month ago. There's no getting rid of Spoelstra now or for the foreseeable future, given what he, his staff and the Heat players accomplished in the last week and the trust it took to do it.

Let Oklahoma City and Thunder coach Scott Brooks deal with all the scrutiny and speculation now. That storyline is played out in south Florida.

LeBron James finally got his ring Thursday night with Miami's 121-106 victory in Game 5 of the Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena and so did Spoelstra, who had taken much of the same grief with little of the acclaim typically accorded James.

Half boyish, half robotic, Spoelstra's public motivational jargon frequently leaves him sounding like a kid clomping around in dad's shoes. It's a different story, though, for those who get the best of Spoelstra in the gym, in the locker room, on the sideline.

"He's an unbelievable hard worker," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said after he and his coach teamed up to win another NBA title. They were there from Wade's first day in Miami, Spoelstra the video coordinator and gym rat dealing with a young star's rich-but-raw game. They were there for the breakthrough in 2006 and they still were at it in Game 5, nine years in with different roles.

"One thing he never let us do this year, he never let us feel like we was better than what we was," Wade said, "and he never made us feel like we was badder than what we was. He never gave us an excuse. We came in, he never said, 'Well, we lost the game because you guys didn't get calls' or 'We lost the game because of this or that.' He came in and said, 'Own up to this. We lost the game because we didn't do enough.'

"We took that mentality on."

The lopsided clincher was Spoelstra's 34th postseason victory, tying him with his boss and mentor, Pat Riley. Spoelstra is 34-22 (.607) in the postseason. Riley was 34-36 (.486).

Spoelstra will forever be the coach who helped James win. While that's no guarantee he'll be around -- Paul Westhead was Magic Johnson's coach for the first of his five rings in L.A. but got thrown under the bus by Magic 18 months later -- it should buy Spoelstra some time and silence next season and beyond.

"All of us are in this, I know I'm in this, for the competition," said Spoelstra, 41, a native of the Philippines and the son of longtime NBA executive Jon Spoelstra. "The competition to be able to put together a team, to sacrifice, to give to something that's bigger than yourself, that's what's gratifying."

And the criticism? The heat he has taken for his rah-rah ways or moments of almost too much candor (admitting that his players cried after a loss to Chicago, for instance)?

"I never really concerned myself with it because of the relationships and the loyalty that's been built up with this organization," Spoelstra said. "It's not a coincidence that a lot of us have been here for 17 years. I've worked so many different positions under Pat, and then to see how far our relationship has grown, I never felt in jeopardy."

To those outside the circle, Spoelstra was in a no-win, all-lose situation. He had been handed superstars to coach by the superstars themselves two summers ago. Riley and owner Micky Arison had permitted him to keep working.

Yet even after the growing pains of 2010-11, Spoelstra always seemed just one more crisis, one more elimination from the curb. And the Heat flirted with that all spring -- they're the first NBA champions to trail in three different series on their way to the title. Miami was down 2-1 to Indiana, 3-2 to Boston and 1-0 to Oklahoma City.

Each time, rather than pulling apart, they came together. Each time, Spoelstra got them to do what the team needed. Maybe even got them to think it was their idea. Maybe his style -- animated, sharp, too far out on the court most of the time -- grates on them at times the same way it does on outsiders.

But somehow, Spoelstra has managed to preside over some of the NBA's most outsized personalities and egos and win.

"Say 'Yes, sir.' Just say 'Yes, sir. Thank you' a lot," Riley said, joking, on the secret of coaching stars. "Not really. He has a great relationship with our whole team, and he's not fearful of the moment in any way, shape or form. I watch him every single day, and I'm not amazed by what he's done."

Spoelstra has handled the inner dynamics of the Heat, not only the big shots but the supporting cast members who occasionally get treated worse than ball boys. He helped to sell James on the advantages of playing perimeter. Spoelstra got Chris Bosh to make way for James in the low post, too, by shifting the All-Star power forward to center and showing him how to love it there. The results were much like Boston's in moving Kevin Garnett to the middle, creating a matchup migraine for most opposing big men. Spoelstra held it all together by getting his players to buy into a stifling, tireless defense that matched or surpassed what they play in Chicago and Boston.

Now Spoelstra is one of only four active NBA coaches to have won championships; San Antonio's Gregg Popovich has four, Dallas' Rick Carlisle and Boston's Doc Rivers have one each. The difference is this guy did it in the shadow of the great Riley. He had yanked the rug out from under Stan Van Gundy back in 2006 and was seen as a threat to do that again, no matter how many denials came down from on high.

But Riley is a true believer in his young coach, which he made clear during the celebration Thursday and even earlier in the week.

"Somebody was talking to me today about whether or not he gets too much criticism or too much credit," Riley said, "and thank God he's in the criticism-and-credit world, because in the middle of that he's got incredible respect from within this organization. He can't control what goes on out there because it's like an hourglass -- you turn it upside down every 15 minutes. ...

"He's very mature, and I see him all the time. I don't bump into him. I don't call meetings with him. We collaborate. And I feel very privileged that at times he will ask me, 'Well, what do you think?' And I'll give him my opinion. But there isn't anybody who wants him to succeed more than I [do] because I want this franchise to win, and I think he's the right man for it."

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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