- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The sly smile on Erik Spoelstra’s lips said it all. If only this once, the Miami coach couldn’t wait to field questions.

This was just minutes after a magical Game 6, when the memories of how his Heat defied the longest of odds to steal a win in overtime were still fresh: Down five points with just under 30 seconds left in regulation, against a San Antonio team and a coach, Gregg Popovich, who never lose their composure or cool.

The championship trophy was on a platform being rolled toward the court, yellow tape stretched on either side of its path, clearing a route through a fast-departing home crowd determined to flee rather than watch the hardware be handed to the Spurs.

In the midst of all that, someone asked Spoelstra, how does a coach keep his team focused?

He was too smart to claim any credit for what happened next. Strategy, at least the strategy hatched on his bench for the closing seconds, had nothing to do with the outcome.

“At that time, I don’t think anybody noticed,” Spoelstra began.

“That is probably the best way to live,” he added, then paused. “In the moment.”

Of course, he could afford to be philosophical.

Before LeBron James made an improbable 3-pointer at the end of a wild scramble, and Ray Allen made an even more improbable 3 to force overtime, Spoelstra was almost certainly thinking about how to explain losing their second NBA Final in the last three years. That, despite having the best player in the game, and a complementary package assembled to do the few tasks _ rebound, pass and sink the occasional 3 to open up space on the floor _ that James couldn’t manage by himself.

But someone had flipped the script.

Long regarded as one of the two or three best coaches currently working in the NBA, it was Popovich instead who wound up on the hot seat. He had to answer for pulling his two best players, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, at the start of the fourth quarter, when the Spurs led by 10 and one more surge might have put the game out of reach.

And why he played a cat-and-mouse substitution game with both over the final few possessions, when Duncan’s presence inside might have stopped Miami from snagging the rebounds that set up those 3-pointers, and how Parker’s absence left Manu Ginobili _ playing erratically, in one of his worst playoff efforts ever _ trying to make the big plays down the stretch.

With hindsight, all of those moves proved too clever by half. So Popovich simply ignored them.

“It was a helluva game, a helluva game. It was a game of mistakes,” he said, glossing over all the ones the Spurs made on the court and the bench, “and they ended up on the winning side.”

Instead of answering why he didn’t foul on Miami’s final possession in regulation when two foul shots _ instead of Allen’s corner 3 _ wouldn’t have been enough, Popovich deflected that question, too.

“That’s a European question, right?” he said. “They usually do in Italy. We don’t.”

Asked next about how he’d ready his team for Game 7 in Miami after the devastating loss, Popovich didn’t even pretend to try.

“I get them on the bus. It arrives at the ramp over here. We get off the bus. We go on the court, and we play,” Popovich replied. “That’s how we get ready.”

The Spurs tried to follow their coach’s lead, but it only worked so well.

Duncan, who scored 25 of his 30 points in the first half and none after the third quarter, shrugged off the odd end-of-the-game substitutions, saying the Spurs have done it that way countless times in the past.

“I don’t know what happened in the fourth (quarter) and overtime. It was just _ the opportunities weren’t there.”

Parker, who had 19 points, said he was “cramping a little bit at the end of the game,” referring to a hamstring injury that’s dogged him the last few games.

“But,” he quickly added, “I’ll go with whatever Pop decides.”

Ultimately, it was left to Ginobili to present a defense, and the quick summary was Popovich is so many moves ahead that even questioning his decisions only makes the rest of us look foolish. To his credit, Ginobili took full blame for his own mistakes, including the last two of eight crippling turnovers that proved decisive.

“I had a very good game last game, and today I just couldn’t maintain it,” he said. “I was very insecure (with the ball). I had a career high in turnovers, and in a really bad moment. It really helps to make me feel terrible.”

No doubt the rest of the Spurs feel the same, standing just seconds from a fifth title that would have removed any doubts about which franchise was the smartest in the NBA. Instead of chasing stars, the preferred route since Michael Jordan walked away, the Spurs built patiently through the draft, made a number of shrewd acquisitions, and let Popovich scheme how to blend and maximize their talents.

One thing that Game 6 proved beyond a doubt is that James, despite all the pressure and criticism, is an unstoppable force when he sets his mind to the task. The other is when a team collapses as completely as San Antonio did, there’s plenty enough blame to go around, but the first sign of a crack almost always surfaces at the top.

Popovich is a great coach who suffers fools poorly, and after listening to a rambling question about how his team “had it in the bag,” he cut a reporter off.

“What’s your question,” he interjected finally. “You want to know how angry we’ll be?”

We’ll take that one for him: Plenty.


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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