- Associated Press - Sunday, May 29, 2011

MIAMI — The photos of the greatest night in Miami Heat history still are 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, 40, 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 timeout 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 never was in any danger. And since that night, the Heat have the league’s best record - riding that wave all the way to homecourt advantage in the NBA finals, which open against Dallas on Tuesday night.

“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.”

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 Chris 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.”

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 moved 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.

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