At a point in the NBA postseason when teams are trying to bump off each other with the curled lips and sustained vitriol of the Hatfields and the McCoys, the coaches in the Eastern Conference finals sound like those polite gophers of Looney Tunes fame.
You know the ones, always saying in their British accents “After you,” “No, you first” and of course “Indubitably!”
Having a healthy respect for one’s opponent is one thing, but Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Boston’s Brad Stevens are somewhere between mutual admiration society and man-crush in the praise and appreciation they lavish on the job each has done with the Heat and the Celtics, respectively.
While players will dap up and make small talk after games, in the heat of competition we’ll see everything from angry glares to heated words to actual, aggressive physical contact. Those flagrant fouls and ejections aren’t for nothing, after all.
But with the coaches, it’s like they’re providing blurbs for the back covers of each other’s autobiographies. It’s enough to make combative Red Auerbach throw up in his hat.
Here’s Stevens talking Tuesday about his Miami counterpart, who holds a 2-1 edge in the series that resumes with Game 4 Wednesday. All bouquets, no brickbats toward the guy whose staff and players are standing between Stevens and his team’s goal.
“[I’m] learning every day from Miami,” the Celtics coach said. “I think Erik is tremendous on both sides of the ball. I think that the way that they have morphed their team to play around the strengths of [Bam] Adebayo at the elbow and all those guys cutting off of him, and then to be able to play with [Goran] Dragic or [Jimmy] Butler in pick-and-rolls or isolations or get matchups or whatever, is tremendous.
“Then on the defensive end, I think the additions of [Jae] Crowder and [Andre] Iguodala gave them a ton more versatility at the trade deadline [and] made everyone else a better defender because it gave them a little bit more help,” Stevens said. “The schemes that they’ve put in place make it really hard to find a good shot. I think the world of Erik. I think the world of their whole program. I think they’re tremendous. But that’s the fun part of this.”
Spoelstra, meanwhile, has gone out of his way — particularly after the Heat won the first two games — to tout Boston as a formidable foe and yield to the impact the Celtics, in being coached-up by Stevens, have had in forcing adjustments on the Heat.
“Let’s be real about it. We got down because they were playing great,” Spoelstra said about one hole in which Miami found itself. “This is a very good team we’re playing against. It’s not as if it was just about us. I would love to say that, ‘Oh, yeah, we were just kind of going through the motions.’ We weren’t. They were putting it to us. They are a very good defensive team and you have be so detailed and purposeful every single possession against them.”
There’s a lot to be said about not giving the other team bulletin board material. But this is the other end of the kudos scale. And it’s not some lame attempt to lull the bad guys into complacency.
“You look at the coaches who are left, the four teams,” former coach Jeff Van Gundy, now an ABC/ESPN analyst, said. “You can’t have more humility than those four guys. That doesn’t mean they don’t have egos or take great pride in their jobs.
“Brad and Eric have only known success. But Michael Malone was let go in Sacramento. Frank [Vogel] was let go in Orlando [and Indiana]. And the other two, I just think they have such a healthy respect for coaches and winning, they just have natural humility.”
It’s not just the four still in the bubble, either. It’s hard to find any real rivalries between NBA coaches these days. Certainly not like in the combustible days of Auerbach, Hubie Brown, Don Nelson or George Karl. You don’t see the Pat Riley vs. Phil Jackson bits of one-upsmanship. Or Jackson vs. Van Gundy (never forget his “Big Chief Triangle” crack).
“Coaching is great in the NBA now,” Van Gundy said. “But I don’t think the egos of the coaches are as big as they once were. I don’t know why. I just see much greater humility now. And knowing how hard it is to win.”
Coaches have as much on the line as players. Pride. Ambition. A consuming desire to be the best. They, too, have multi-million dollar contracts at stake and are far more likely to be fired than players.
Yet the fraternal air among the coaches is strong, beyond the end-of-game wave toward the opposite end.
One theory Van Gundy offered stems from the NBA’s intervention over the past decade or two. In hitting coaches’ and owners’ wallets.
“When Commissioner [David] Stern started to heavily fine them for the criticism of officiating, it helped to eliminate that,” Van Gundy said. “Because when Coach A says what he says about officiating, then Coach B thinks he needs to protect his team. Then it starts to get a little bit contentious.”
The intended audience were the referees, complaining about calls the other guys got to plant a seed for the next game. But the other guys often fired back.
Van Gundy had wondered if the fans-less bubble of the Disney campus restart might lead to some simultaneous bickering and resentment, but he hasn’t seen it. “I thought there might be more hearing what each other is saying, and working the officials at the same time,” he said.
There’s another big reason Spoelstra and Stevens are so respectful of each other. Game recognizes game, right? They are widely regarded as two of the top five or six coaches in the NBA.
Spoelstra, 49, has two rings from the four consecutive Finals he went to, steering the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh rock band to the championship round each year from 2011 to 2014. Hired as a video coordinator, he spent 13 years in various Heat roles before taking over in 2008-09 for Riley. His .623 postseason winning percentage ranks fourth in NBA history.
“Erik has had good teams, he’s had championship-level teams and he’s had lottery teams,” Van Gundy said. “I’m not so sure he hasn’t coached his lottery teams every bit as well as he coached his championship teams.”
Stevens, 43, hasn’t won any titles yet or reached a Finals. But his work with Boston’s front office in rebuilding the Celtics has been swift. The former Butler University coach went 25-57 in his first pro season, and has had the Celtics in the playoffs all seven years since. Ironically, the job requiring work and rolled-up sleeves that Doc Rivers no longer wanted in Boston in 2013 hasn’t stopped Stevens from reaching the East finals three times. Rivers has failed to get the LA Clippers to the West finals even once.
“With Brad, he came in, I thought he was extremely good from Day 1,” Van Gundy said. “ He didn’t have a good team. Since he’s had a good team, he’s done a great job with good teams, too.”
As with most coaches, it’s fair to say that the pecking order for what gets them worked up — in order, their players, the officials, then the other team’s player — doesn’t leave much bile for the other team’s coach.
Said Van Gundy: “Your team plays against the other team. But you really don’t coach against the other coach.
“You’re coaching to try to get your team and your players to do their very best. Obviously, their best is impacted by what the other team does. But I’ve never bought into the idea that ‘So-and-so outcoached the other coach.’ Teams outplay other teams, and sometimes you’re upset with things you did or didn’t do. But it’s not like this intense head-to-head competition.”
Typically, coaches are judged against whatever other options they didn’t choose out of a timeout or in a clutch moment. Players used, players rested. Shots drawn up, other plays ignored. It rarely comes down to some chess move with which one coach snookered the other.
“It’s so hard to make all the individual choices you have to make as a coach,” Van Gundy said, “you don’t have a lot of time to think about, is the other guy annoying you?”
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