May 25, 2017 01:02 PM PST
SINCE 2007

Embrace the test, seize the moment

MIAMI HEAT COACH ERIK SPOELSTRA
By JUN MEDINA

Filipino American head coach Erik Spoelstra and the Miami Heat gun for their second consecutive NBA title Thursday night (June 6) as Miami hosts the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of their first NBA Finals encounter at the American Airlines Arena.

Basketball-loving Filipinos are excited about how the best teams in the East and West, featuring their "Big Three," match up in what could be tight and highly competitive series. Surely, the spotlight will be on how four-time MVP LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh of Miami will fare against San Antonio's formidable trio of four-time champions Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in anchoring their respective teams to victory.

Of course, Pinoy hoops fans will be rooting for Spo, as the fast-rising Pinoy Heat strategist is fondly called by friends and associates, when he pits basketball strategy and tactics versus Spurs' head coach Greg "Pops" Popovich, arguably one of the best NBA coaches today.

 

Legendary NBA star Reggie Miller thinks the Spoelstra-Popovich matchup is one of the interesting subplots of the Finals because of the classic clash of team culture they represent and their ability to make adjustments on the fly that could determine the outcome of the current championship series.

"They are both going to the Hall of Fame," ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, a former NBA coach, told the Associated Press. "They both have tremendous respect from the coaches they coach against, and they both have a level of humility that I believe shows NBA coaching in the most positive light possible."

Spoelstra is in the finals for the third straight year and is aiming for a second consecutive title. Popovich is going for his fifth title, the last of the ones currently in his collection coming over James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007. Should he win this one, Popovich will join Phil Jackson as the only coach to win championships in three different decades.

In Wednesday's Finals press conference on the eve of Game 1, Spoelstra brushed aside comparisons with Popovich as a "distraction" and stressed that his ultimate focus is winning the championship.

"The most important thing for us will always be 'Can we impose our identity?' That's the most important thing," Spoelstra said.

The Pinoy coach said he expects the Spurs to continue to play tough defense while attacking the rim, the same basic features of the game of Miami, which is considered the best offensive team in the league.

"We have a different challenge in doing it against the Spurs than we did against the (Indiana) Pacers," Spoelstra said.

"Offensively, we will have to attack them in different ways than we did against the Pacers," he added.

The 42-year-old Spoelstra, a half-Filipino on his mother side, is the first ethnic Asian in the history of the major American sports leagues to become head coach. He has steered the Heat to the playoffs since being handpicked by his mentor, NBA legend Pat Riley, to succeed him as Miami head coach in 2009.

Described by NBA Hall of Famer Riley as "a guy born to coach," Spoelstra's five year stint as Miami coach has been quite remarkable.

Since getting the job in 2008, Spoelstra has steered the Heat to the playoffs, including three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals after the team put together the "Big Three" with the acquisition of LeBron James and Cris Bosh to join team ace guard Dwayne Wade in 2009-2010 season.

Despite Popovich's clear advantage in experience, Spoestra's statistics compares well with those of the Spurs' mentor.

For instance, Popovich has a slight edge in overall win-loss record of 905-423, or .681 to Spo's 260-134 (.660).

But the Filipino coach has a better playoffs record: 46-26 (.639) -- the third best in the NBA -- to Popovich's 130-79 (.622).

Although oddsmakers give the Heat the edge, Spoelstra deftly avoids predicting the outcome of what he insists is going to a be a "tough" series

Still he repeats the challenge always gives his players, like he did when his team's back is against the wall in Game 7 against the Indiana Pacers: "Embrace the challenge, seize the moment."

And for a coach who practices what he preaches, Spo is definitely up to the challenge.