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Ball Don't Lie

Win or lose, coaches Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra have been up to their Finals task

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Gregg Popovich gets all chummy with Tim Duncan on Tuesday afternoon (Getty Images)

It may not strike you at first, what with Manu Ginobili needing until Game 5 to get going and Miami’s Big Three taking turns at being stuck in the mud – but the best thing about these 2013 NBA Finals may very well be the coaching on both sides. In a quick turnaround series that started just days after the Miami Heat finished off the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals, running the complete opposite to San Antonio’s extended break after being the Memphis Grizzlies on their end, Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra have put together two masterful efforts on their teams’ behalf.

The question for Spoelstra, who is currently facing a 3-2 deficit in these Finals, is if this is even enough. He’s done his part, as a tactician, to get LeBron James and crew going on both ends. And yet, as it has been since 2010, it may not be enough.

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Gregg Popovich doesn’t have nearly the same-sized obstacle. Bit of a self-starter, these Spurs are.

Not only has Spoelstra done his part, but his part may not be over. During Tuesday’s meeting with reporters prior to Game 6 he hinted at possible lineup changes, a move that wouldn’t be out of place in a series that has featured two lineup switches already from two teams that had put together a combined 148 wins before even hitting the Finals stage. That’s equal parts bravery, chutzpah and confidence; an inability to react on the fly remains one of the NBA’s bigger coaching weaknesses, as some coaches still treat it as if it’s somehow a sign of weakness.

Not Erik Spoelstra, who popped Mike Miller into the lineup before winning Game 4, or Popovich, who threw Manu Ginobili into the starting mix before Game 5’s triumph. Miller’s turn as a starter (probably) ended with a thud, as he missed the only two shots he took in the two final games in San Antonio, but the point is the permutation – because the overall results aren’t in yet, and because the fat lady ain’t sung a note, yet.

Meanwhile, both teams’ offense continues to shift. Tony Parker is still dominant at times and working wonders against the Heat, but his attack is nothing like the single-minded offensive derring-do we saw Tony showcase against the Memphis Grizzlies. Tim Duncan set plenty of screens in that series, but he’s taken that sideshow to a ridiculous degree in the Finals as Danny Green has gone wild from the outside.

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Erik Spoelstra leaves the court after his Heat lost Game 5 (Getty Images)

Miami hasn’t been as successful on that end, but this isn’t to say Spoelstra hasn’t mixed things up a bit. Dwyane Wade was asked to score and create from completely different spots on the floor in Game 4 than he was in a middling Game 3, and though those attempts may all look mid-rangey to the shot charts, the angles and looks Wade was given made all the difference in his 32-point night. On top of that, Chris Bosh has slowly been eased back into his offensive game by being asked to focus on fronting and creating havoc defensively, leading to that eureka/”oh, wait, I’ve got skills and can score, too”-moment when Bosh gets the ball on the other end.

What Spoelstra can’t do, after asking his players to go to their personal preferred spots, is find a way to get them into the spots that the coaching staff would prefer. This is why the Spurs have a 3-2 lead, and this is why Miami’s season could end on Tuesday.

Spo has had to watch helplessly as Dwyane Wade floats on defense, refuses to close out on shooters, or fails to show up at all on that end by complaining about a call on the previous possession. Spoelstra can’t physically drag LeBron James into the low post, or into moving quickly without the ball early in a possession – making LBJ a terror to guard even if he doesn’t touch the ball for the entirety of the possession.

The sorts of winning elements that allowed Miami to down both Boston and Oklahoma City last year and run 27 wins this year just haven’t been in place consistently in this series. That’s on the players, not the staff that watches five times as much game tape as they do.

By now, this is Miami’s modus operandi. They never play well with a lead or a tie in place, and the team always seems to wait until its backs are against the proverbial wall before it lunges ahead. That worked against Boston (too old to keep up) and Oklahoma City (too green, and unwilling to change). And it worked against Chicago and Indiana.

These are the Spurs, though. They’re different. They’ve always been different, even when going out in the first round.

Criticism aside, these are both heady and enjoyable times. We may only get 48 more minutes of this sort of expert coaching in the 2012-13 season. Enjoy it, while it still stalks the sideline in real time.

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