Spoelstra is Miami's calming influence
The photos of the greatest night in Miami Heat history are still on the walls of the arena where they play. Erik Spoelstra is grinning, bottle of beer in hand, the T-shirt he donned amid that championship celebration at Dallas in 2006 soaked by champagne.
To this day, that shirt remains in his possession, never been washed.
''I'm not going to tell you where that is,'' Spoelstra said. ''What, are you going to steal it from me?''
He has the chance to add another soaked shirt to that collection now, having led the Heat back to the NBA finals again - against the Mavericks, ironic both in that sense and in that Dallas was the site for perhaps this season's most challenging moment.
It was Nov. 27, the Heat were about to lose for the eighth time in 17 games, and Spoelstra was marching angrily onto the court after calling a time-out in the third quarter. LeBron James walked past him, sending his right shoulder into Spoelstra's right shoulder.
'Bumpgate,' it was dubbed.
'Bumpgate,' it turned out, was only a bump in the road. Despite widespread speculation otherwise, Spoelstra's job was never in any danger. And since that night, the Heat have the league's best record - riding that wave all the way to home-court advantage in the NBA finals, which open against Dallas on Tuesday night.
''From Day 1, we've had a high level of confidence that Spo's a good coach,'' Heat owner Micky Arison said. ''Pat's had full confidence in him. I've had full confidence in him. We knew that this would be an unbelievable challenge. ... And what is amazing to me is how even-keeled he was throughout the season.''
Players have largely the same reaction to the work Spoelstra has turned in this season.
''He's done great,'' Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. ''Coach Spo's done great. He's the same, man, no matter what, and we appreciate that because we know what we're going to get from him.''
Never was that more appreciated than when things seemed on the cusp of breaking down in November.
From the onset of this season, Spoelstra told those around him, told the Heat players as well, that becoming a championship unit - even with guys like James, Wade and Bosh in tow - would take time, and that it would start with a commitment to defense.
He called it ''The Process,'' and at times, the process was painful, especially on that night in Dallas.
''The infamous 'Bumpgate,''' Spoelstra said. ''That was a good starting moment for LeBron and I, just from the standpoint that we both realized, 'Hey, this is bizarre, the spotlight and the story lines that are developing with this team.' The two of us seemed to be a lightning rod for it. We understood we're in this together and the only way we'd all figure this out is if we got on the same page.''
They got there. And now the 40-year-old is four wins away from delivering a championship.
Spoelstra's rise is well-documented. He started in the Heat video room around the same time as Pat Riley, now the team president, was taking over the basketball operations side of the franchise, neither of them ever envisioning what would transpire over the next 15 years or so. When Riley retired as coach for a second time, he made the long-assumed move of tapping Spoelstra as his successor.
Spoelstra won 43 games his first season, 47 in the second, and was a key part of the group that hit the road last summer in an effort to woo Wade, James and Bosh, somehow getting them all. Building a relationship with James took time, but it's clear that the coach and the player have never been closer - especially important now that the stakes are so high.
''I knew my communication with the head coach had to become better,'' James said. ''Seventeen games into the season, it wasn't as great as it is now, of course. It's definitely grown. It should grow.''
That process started moments after that loss, in a long players-only meeting in Dallas. Two days later, James and Spoelstra sat down in Miami, not to so much clear the air but simply to try and learn more about each other and exchange some ideas.
Starting right then, the Heat ripped off 21 wins in their next 22 games. And Miami - with Spoelstra at the helm - is one of only five NBA teams (Dallas is among that group) to increase its victory total in each of the past three seasons.
''He's done a terrific job,'' Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said Sunday in Dallas. ''The road he's taken to where he is now, he's done it the right way, by paying dues and absolutely earning everything he's got.''
Overall, since 'Bumpgate,' the Heat are 61-19. And now, a finals shot awaits for the man who took what Riley built, kept the same framework but has clearly shaped it to his own vision - all with the blessing of his boss.
''He's way far ahead of me in this stage of his career,'' Riley said after the Heat won the Eastern Conference title.
There was a time when Spoelstra, like most assistants, would send Riley notes with their ideas. Nowadays, Riley is the sounding board for Spoelstra.
When things were rough during a five-game slide earlier this season, Riley walked Spoelstra up to his office after the game to share a bottle of wine and tell some stories. Spoelstra walked out feeling better. The losing streak ended not long afterward.
They are alike in many ways: Riley used to use blue cards to jot down ideas, which he'd file into thick binders, and Spoelstra uses a similar system. But Spoelstra is not merely a clone, either.
The Heat are Spoelstra's team, and these finals may well be his time, too.
''He's definitely put his stamp on it,'' Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. ''I'm sure coach Riley has input here and there, but he runs this team and this ship the way he wants to run it. He takes input from the players as well, but ultimately he makes the final decisions. And we pretty much do things his way.''
AP Sports Writer Jaime Aron in Dallas contributed to this story.
Tim Reynolds is on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ByTimReynolds