When Spoelstra and Popovich face off, the respect is clear

MIAMI — The postgame routine between San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Miami’s Erik Spoelstra is almost always the same. A handshake or embrace near midcourt at the final buzzer. They exchange a few words. They laugh. And then the coaches head off in opposite directions.

“Respect,” Popovich said.

“Class,” Spoelstra said.

It has been this way for a while now, and was again Wednesday when they went head-to-head for the 37th time. The postgame meeting tradition goes back to at least the 2013 NBA Finals, a seven-game series that the Spurs felt they let get away — Ray Allen’s game-tying 3-pointer with 5.2 seconds left in regulation of Game 6 had a little to do with that.

But even in that moment, as Miami’s on-court championship celebration was just starting, Popovich gave Spoelstra a hug and said a few words of congratulations into his ear. Later that summer, Popovich sent Spoelstra a note with more words of praise and wisdom.

And the mutual admiration has grown ever since between the two coaches who have been in their jobs longer than any other current coaches in the NBA; Popovich took over in San Antonio in 1996, Spoelstra was promoted by the Heat in April 2008, a few days before Dallas hired Rick Carlisle.

“I really admire what he’s done, coming up through the ranks and how he’s matriculated through the different levels in the league and ended up in a position he’s in,” Popovich said of Spoelstra, who famously started in the Heat video room under Pat Riley and has been in Miami ever since. “He’s worked so hard, done such a great job, and it’s just kind of thrilling to see somebody achieve that.”

Included in those 37 meetings are two NBA Finals matchups in 2013 and 2014 — the Heat won the first one, the Spurs took the rematch. Popovich is 21-16 in the series, but Wednesday was a milestone for Spoelstra, who got his 600th regular-season victory.

He and Popovich are two of only six coaches to win 600 regular-season games with one franchise.

“He’s always just been an incredible example of class, dignity,” Spoelstra said of Popovich. “To be able to do that after wins or losses, I just think it’s a great example that you can still have class regardless of how the outcome comes during a game.”

Spoelstra sees plenty of similarities between the franchises. There’s stability in ownership, stability in the front offices, even a penchant for simple black polo shirts in this dressed-down era for coaches in the NBA thanks to a relaxation of rules during the pandemic.

And each franchise has long had the reputation for doing things the right way. Popovich spoke volumes about that tie-in between the teams when he asked former Heat assistant Dan Craig, now the associate head coach for the Los Angeles Clippers, to join him with USA Basketball for some workouts in Las Vegas three summers ago. Popovich will coach the U.S. men’s basketball team in the Tokyo Olympics this summer.

“Our paths haven’t crossed a great deal, if at all, over the years. Maybe just in passing, and summer league, but that’s about it,” Spoelstra said. “He’s been an incredible example of a role model, I think, for so many of us coaches. We just watch how he operates and runs that program, they have a great culture, their structure, but I think there’s also a growth mindset, and an openness to be vulnerable and learn about different things.”

And yes, after Miami finished off its 116-111 win on Wednesday, there was the midcourt chat and a congratulatory pat on the back. It only took a few seconds, as usual, and then they headed their separate ways once again.

As always, the respect was clear.

“We’ve had some great battles,” Popovich said. “Our teams have competed against each other enough, and at high levels, where we both appreciate what that’s like to go through that — sometimes on top, sometimes not. So, I think a respect develops out of that and an understanding of how tough these jobs are and how fortunate we are to be able to compete at this level. I think that’s a big part of it.”

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