Miami Heat president Pat Riley has seen quite a few roads, and taken a few forks in his basketball lifetime. He’s also popped a few corks, and broken down more than his fair share of game tape over the years. The same goes for Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who started his career with the Heat as a tape operator before developing into one of the more respected head coaches the NBA has to offer.
Riley won his ninth championship as a player, coach, and personnel boss on Thursday, but not before the Heat team he created went through a fair amount of strife. Miami needed seven games to take down the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals, and the team was down both 1-0 and 2-1 to a San Antonio Spurs squad that had never lost nor even been down a game in a Finals series.
Riley knew his staff needed a jolt following a frustrating Game 3 loss, and according to Spoelstra, he provided it in spades during one late-night hotel room visit. Along with some tannins, sulfites, and wispy aromatic notes. From the Sun-Sentinel:
Only Monday could the Heat coach can smile when recounting the scene after that 113-77 loss — one of the biggest blowouts in NBA Finals history.
"I was despondent," he said. "I was beside myself."
So he went back to his hotel suite to break down some game film. Video coordinator Dan Craig was there too. About 20 minutes later, there was a knock at the door.
There stood Heat president Pat Riley with three bottles of wine and an offering of help.
"So we gave him a laptop and he helped us break down film in a role reversal from 2006," said Spoelstra, a Heat assistant coach under Riley back then. "It was one of the most special moments in my professional career."
This is how both men made their particular hay. Riley remains a master motivator, but by the end of his penultimate turn as Heat coach in 2003 the league had just about caught up to him. Riley had to lean on younger types – Stan Van Gundy and Spoelstra – to reconfigure his style of adaptation. By the time Riley took over for Van Gundy, in his final turn as head coach from 2005 to 2008, he counted on Spoelstra as his trusted top assistant.
With Spoelstra’s back to the wall seemingly once again, and a 2-1 deficit looming in the face of two more contests to play in San Antonio, Riley came through for his team’s coach when he needed it most. And it’s probably telling that Riles waited until after his team’s 101st game of the season to duck into a hotel room meeting. Old Pat would have wanted to chat until the dawn after every single regular or postseason loss. Probably some of the wins, too.
Of course, that developing sense of touch and timing is easier to apply when you have LeBron James at your side. Still, it’s easy to forget – in the days since a Game 3 that felt like it took place ages ago – that many wondered if James was well on his way to frittering away yet another deciding playoff series, as he had in 2010, and 2011.
James, and the coaching staff, came through. All sorts of spacing adjustments were made as the series moved along, and though it took a desperate Ray Allen make in Game 6 and a pair of unlikely Tim Duncan misses in Game 7, the Heat pulled it out.
Riley is about to enter some heady times. Dwyane Wade’s injury struggles during the postseason nearly cost his Heat the championship, and he’s faced with a major series of decisions to make in 2014 as both James, Wade, and Chris Bosh can opt out of their contracts to head elsewhere. Meanwhile, he has to work around a luxury tax bill that makes it hard for Miami to add to its top-heavy rotation; because even though players (as evidenced by Ray Allen, Mike Miller, and Shane Battier choosing to play with the Heat since LeBron came on board) want to come to Miami, it still comes down to picking the right players.
Riley picked the right coach in Erik Spoelstra, though. Two rings, and three bottles in, this much is apparent.