Gregg Popovich is old enough to be Erik Spoelstra’s dad. If the 2013 NBA Finals came down to experience and guile, Popovich would win hands down if you put a wager on basketball. You can bet US fans will pick Pop in a heartbeat.
Popovich, 64, is the Garry Kasparov of coaches. He may be old but has never lost a championship match. He has coached in more than 1,300 games won more than 900. Meanwhile, the 42-year-old Spoelstra — who has 260 wins in his NBA coaching career — is the young master who, even though he has a title under his belt, still feels like he has to prove himself on the big stage.
So, having said that, when Spoelstra threw the first haymaker of The Finals, Popovich surprisingly flinched.
After watching his team get demolished by 36 points in Game 3, Spo felt he needed a game-changer to re-ignite his team and cool down the red-hot Spurs. He started sharpshooter Mike Miller in Game 4 instead of defensive-minded forward Udonis Haslem, and benched center Chris “Birdman” Andersen in favor of forward Shane Battier.
The adjustments were made out of necessity, Spoelstra said. The Heat had been struggling to unlock the Spurs zone defense, so by having Miller in the starting lineup the floor is spread and allows LeBron James and Dwyane Wade more room to operate in the paint. And having Battier in the mix makes the Heat quicker and more sound on their defensive rotations, which is crucial in stopping the Spurs’ ball movement.
The Heat have been playing “small ball” all season, so the move was not completely out of character for them. However, it forced the Spurs to make a decision: stay big or go small? We got the answer 47 seconds into Game 4.
Tim Duncan was matched up with Chris Bosh, Kawhi Leonard was on James, Tony Parker on Mario Chalmers, and Danny Green on Miller. That left 6-10 center Tiago Splitter on Wade. ABC TV analyst Jeff Van Gundy immediately pointed out this mismatch and said Wade should feel disrespected by having Splitter on him. “He should be thinking ‘I’m gonna score 40,’ ” Van Gundy said.
On Miami’s first possession, Wade threw Splitter off balance with a hard pump fake and drew a two-shot foul. Pop had seen enough. He summoned Gary Neal off the bench and in for Splitter at the 11:13 mark of the first quarter. Miller didn’t score a point in Game 4, but his mere presence to start the game shook up the series and got the Heat into their comfort zone.
“We just think it’s important for us right now. That’s why I did it,” said Spoelstra, who doesn’t get enough recognition for being one of the best coaches in the game.
“The score didn’t indicate on how we want to play. We were down 10, but the most important thing was getting to our game, and this matchup was the best decision for it. It allows us to get to a game where we’re familiar with and confident with.”
Spo doesn’t like to call his recent adjustment as part of a chess match between himself and Grandmaster Pop. Instead, he referred to it as a trigger to “competitive skirmishes.”
“It’s part of playoff basketball,” Spoelstra said. “The most important thing is to understand you’re not playing chess. It’s a basketball game. Can you win the competitive skirmishes in the game? That’s the most important thing for us. But you do have to make adjustments. Playing against the same team and playing the same way won’t always work.”
Spo’s bold move fueled an unusually shaky reaction from the normally unflappable Popovich. He went away from the Spurs big lineup the rest of the game and even inserted out-of-shape and little-used forward Boris Diaw in the starting lineup in the second half of Game 4. And to make matters worse, Pop had Diaw guard Wade. No wonder Wade scored 32 points and shot 14-for-25 from the field.
When Popovich was asked what adjustments he’ll make for the next game he told Palm Beach Post writer Ethan Skolnick, “I hate to be trite, anything is possible. But your question demands my triteness.”
The chess match continues.
Joel Huerto is the editor and publisher of OneManFastBreak.net. Follow him on Twitter @onemanfastbreak.