In an NBA Finals riddled with prospective duels that boggle the mind and soul, perhaps few will pay attention to the head coaches of the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder ... until crunch time. For all of the scrutiny that Russell Westbrook and LeBron James get in the moments of highest pressure, a fair bushel of that is also sent at Scott Brooks and Erik Spoelstra, respectively. Complaints about the Heat's late-game reliance on "hero ball" plague Spo, while Brooks takes heat for allowing Westbrook to run the show while Kevin Durant hangs out on the perimeter.
Beyond that, the rotation decisions of these two coaches are consistently questioned. Why is Serge Ibaka still on the bench? Why isn't Chris Bosh starting the second half? Get Kendrick Perkins out of there! Mario Chalmers is killing them. Free James Harden! Free Eddy Curry! (OK, maybe I'm getting a little carried away.)
What's funny is that the opposite applied to the coaches vanquished in the conference finals. Questioning the Spurs' Gregg Popovich is akin to questioning the word of the Basketball Gods themselves; you don't backtalk a bishop, even from your couch. Boston's Doc Rivers isn't quite as revered a tactician, but is considered the gold standard when it comes to building team chemistry and motivating his charges. If we'd gotten Spurs vs. Celtics in the NBA Finals, we'd be seeing glowing paeans to the coaches.
Something tells me robust appreciations of Brooks and Spoelstra will be fewer.
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Frankly, that's fair, because the two have plenty to prove. For every challenge the young fellas -- Brooks is 46, Spoelstra 41 -- have bridged, there are two more in the way. Pop has four titles; Rivers coached a brand new team (the '08 Celtics) to the championship in one season, and kept a disparate group of aging legends and a rising star together for half of a decade of excellence. Brooks and Spo haven't achieved any more than what they just achieved: Finals bids. We question relative inexperience because we haven't seen data (anecdotal or otherwise) to prove their relative worth just yet.
Those questions mentioned above apply to most coaches, primarily because every fan and analyst has a different basketball worldview. It's easy to fear no disqualification by personal foul from the bleachers, but harder to do so from the first chair on the bench. When Ibaka's fourth foul in the third quarter gets him the hook and draw squeals from the chorus, that's when the scrutiny really focuses in on Brooks. It's easy to imagine wondrous crunch time plays being run as we draw them up on our iPad whiteboard apps during the fourth quarter. When Spoelstra shuns such a play to let LeBron create off of a high pick-and-roll, we'll jeer. That's when the scrutiny really focuses in on Spo.
Seven things to know about the NBA Finals.
When Ibaka's able to play the entire final eight minutes and be a difference-maker on defense, we won't exactly rush to credit Brooks for being cautious earlier. When LeBron makes a play in the lane to give Miami a lead, we won't rush to credit Spoelstra for trusting his best player to get points. Coaching in the NBA is thankless right up to the moment at which excellence becomes irrefutable. Rivers is a perfect example: He was the reason the Celtics would lose in the 2008 playoffs ... until they won the title. Then he became widely accepted as a virtuoso. Then he repeated his feats (without earning another ring), and now he is pretty close to legend. Will Brooks or Spoelstra ever reach such grand heights? One will get a tremendous boost, because being able to hold up that O'Brien trophy will vindicate all questionable decisions, will silence all whinging from the crowd. These days that's how we know whether a coach is good or not: whether he has a ring. It's imperfect, but it's what we've got in this attention-deprived sports world.
While Brooks and Spoelstra sit in similar positions, they are actually quite different as coaches. Brooks taps that Rivers vein: The peaks into his huddles are riddled with passages of what could pass as cliché coach talk, motivational exclamations and, frankly, a bit of cheeseball call to action. (We can snub our noses, but it seems to work pretty darn well.) Spoelstra (dubbed Spo-Bot 5000 by the great @netw3rk) is more Popovich: a tactician who forces the rah-rah because, well, he's a coach. He has to give the rah-rah. But he's much more comfortable doodling on his clipboard and making angry eyes at Mario Chalmers. (And if you think Pop wouldn't have punched Chalmers in the mouth during these playoffs already, you're so wrong.)
It's for that reason I give the coaching nod to Spoelstra, one of basketball's brightest minds. Brooks and his staff clearly have worked wonders to get Durant and Westbrook playing beautiful ball together, to get the defense right and to incorporate Harden into late-game offense. But Spo's thirst for creative ball, commitment to trying different things and passion for Xs and Os shines.
Let's hope that win or lose, he starts to get the respect he deserves.
The Hook is an NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.