NBA Finals: In quest for 4th ring, LeBron must go through coach, team that taught him how to win

TJ Manotoc, ABS-CBN North America Bureau

Posted at Sep 28 2020 05:56 PM | Updated as of Sep 28 2020 06:29 PM

LeBron James calls a play, as Heat coach Erik Spoelstra looks on in Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Spurs, on June 20, 2013, in Miami. Lynne Sladky, AP/file

As the final buzzer sounded at AT&T Arena in San Antonio, Texas, in Game 5 of the 2014 NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs once again took back the NBA championship and in the process took down one special team that many saw was destined to be the next NBA dynasty.
 
The Miami Heat -- led by the Big 3 of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, and coached by Filipino-American Erik Spoelstra -- had back-to-back NBA titles under their belt and were in their fourth straight Finals. 

But Spurs coach Gregg Poppovich and his team brand of basketball led by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili humbled the Heat in 5 games and sent them crashing down to earth. Few knew then that would be the last time the world would see the Big 3 together, and the last time Lebron James would be in a Heat jersey and on the same sidelines as Spoelstra.
 
Following the bitter loss to the Spurs, James took free agency into his own hands again and left Miami empty-handed to return to his hometown of Cleveland where he then led them to 4 straight Finals appearances and one historic championship in 2016.

James has since moved to Los Angeles and has now led the Lakers to their first Finals appearance since 2010.
 
Since their split with James, it has been a different story for coach Spo and the Heat.
 
They lost Bosh to a rare blood condition that forced him to retire, briefly separated with Wade that saw their franchise player go to the Bulls and then the Cavaliers. All the while, Spo and Heat president Pat Riley rebuilt the team with the hopes that the championship DNA would once again form a contender.

This time, Spoelstra was not gifted with three superstars on his plate. 
 
He and Riley rebuilt the team starting with a gutsy trade for Goran Dragic, with the vision to build a winning team around him.
 
Strategic draft picks in Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro. 
 
Under-the-radar undrafted free agent signings of Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson. 
 
And the key acquisition of All-Star Jimmy Butler as the final piece to start the 2019-2020 season.
 
The Heat sprinkled more playoff veteran experience by adding Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala in recent months. 
 
The team looked complete, but still a little green behind the ears and only needed some years to ripen as a contender. Considering the fact that the Eastern Conference was still stacked with the defending champions Toronto Raptors, No. 1 seed Milwaukee Bucks, and the perennial playoff regulars the Boston Celtics.

LeBron James and Erik Spoelstra gave each other their first championships; now they stand in each other's way as they pursue another title. Ronald Martinez, Getty Images via AFP/file

But the NBA bubble in Orlando posed a new dynamic to the competition, with players and coaches being away from their families and having virtually zero home-court advantage. 
 
It evened the playing field slightly and showed the vulnerability of the top contenders that lost the boost of a home crowd and familiar settings. 
 
The Heat, who entered the playoffs just the 5th seed in the East, went through a gritty Indiana Pacers, sweeping them in the first round.
 
Then they took down the No. 1 seed Bucks and MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the 2nd round. With a little luck on their side, too, as the MVP went down with an ankle sprain in Game 3, was not 100% in Game 4, and eventually missed Game 5.
 
Then the Heat gutted out a 6-game series against another early East contender in the Boston Celtics.
 
After all three hard-fought series wins that finally landed them in the Finals again, the spotlight this time is not on 3 superstars. 
 
Yes, there are a handful of key players who took turns leading the team in points, rebounds, assists and game-clinching 4th-quarter performances. But the true key to this version of the Heat is the still underrated coaching of Spoelstra.
 
Even with his back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013, Spoelstra was given little credit due to the fact that many saw those title runs as being carried by James, Wade and Bosh. Only a handful of purists then stepped out of their lanes to emphasize just how good of a coach Spoelstra was.
 
Now, with how he has molded this team in this unusual season into a legit contender -- taking down two solid teams that could have been in the Finals in their place -- Spoelstra gets the spotlight he truly deserves.
 
But this is just the Eastern Conference championship. Yes, they have a shiny silver trophy, but Spo and the Heat know the celebration will last just one night, and more work will be done the next morning. The goal was not just to prove the critics wrong and make it to the Finals; the goal is to win it all.
 
Spo said it so eloquently again after clinching the East, diverting the credit to the grit and hard work of his team. 

“Teams like this are unique and special, a group that really competes. A bunch of guys that have been overlooked in a lot of ways. A lot of guys in our locker room have been told that they are less than; they are the anti-AAU or new age analytics where you're trying to figure out what a player can do statistically. These guys just want to compete. They just want to roll the ball out and play and compete and fight for it,” he said.

“And that's one of the reasons that I really, really admire and love being a part of this group.”
 
But standing in their way?
 
A familiar face, the man who was key in giving them their last 2 rings as he now is on his own mission to bring back glory to the Purple and Gold in Los Angeles. And fulfill a promise to a dear friend and big brother, the late Kobe Bryant.

James will go against his former coach and the franchise that taught him how to win on the biggest stage.
 
After his departure from the Heat to go back to Cleveland, James humbly credited the Heat for teaching him the ropes. He said it was like college those past 4 years and made him grow.
 
“Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids. These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man. I learned from a franchise that had been where I wanted to go. I will always think of Miami as my second home. Without the experiences I had there, I wouldn’t be able to do what i’m doing today,” James penned in his Sports Illustrated essay announcing his return home in 2014.
 
To this day, James uses those tools and skills, and since then has led a team to the Finals 5 times resulting in one ring with the Cavs. Now he seeks a 4th ring.
 
It's a matchup few could have predicted at the start of the season. There are so many storylines to follow and on-court matchups of players with championship experience on one side and hunger and youth on the other. 
 
Now James and his Lakers are face to face with Spoelstra and a Heat culture that has since used their DNA to rebuild another contender in just 6 years. The sports world awaits an epic showdown that could further enhance one’s legacy or put another stain on the other.