Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen - March 25, 2013The San Antonio Spurs face the Miami Heat in this season’s NBA Finals, starting on Thursday night. We caught up with ESPN commentator Jeff Van Gundy for his thoughts on the match-up.

What would you look at as Miami’s greatest matchup concern in this series, and also, could you see Duncan and Splitter giving them the type of problems that West and Hibbert did?

VAN GUNDY:  Well, I think, you know, Tony Parker’s pick‑and‑roll game is obviously as good as any point guard’s pick‑and‑roll game in the NBA.  So it’s not an individual matchup.

But the way that San Antonio plays, where Parker has such great offensive energy, he’ll hit you not with just one pick‑and‑roll.  But it will be a pick‑and‑roll and he’ll make a pass; if they don’t have anything, they will go into a dribble hand off; if they don’t get anything off that, right into another pick‑and‑roll for Parker.

So you have to defend multiple actions almost every trip down the court, and Parker to me has such great offensive stamina and offensive energy that from a team standpoint, I think that will be the toughest cover that they have.

I think San Antonio has great roster flexibility.  I think it’s really a well-put together roster.  They can play, you know, really big, and then they can down size and play a shooting four as well as to really stretch the floor without getting too small when they put Bonner in.  I think Boris Diaw is somewhat in between a big guy and a shooter.  He’s not a great shooter but he is a great passer.

So I think their front line flexibility is absolutely terrific and a great advantage against most teams.

The Heat are out to repeat (NBAE)

The Heat are out to repeat (NBAE)

Q.  As you travel around to games, how have you seen fans view the Heat evolve over these last three seasons?  Do you feel it’s changed some over these years?

VAN GUNDY:  I do.  I think in general, the Heat in that first year were loved in Miami and for the most part, outside of Miami, were looked upon negatively.  Only because, you know, nothing I think that happened on the court; I think it was all the off‑the‑court build‑up and how they put their team together.

But once they lost the championship, and some were happy that they did; I think when they won the Championship the next year, and we saw them I thought handle themselves and the negative attention so well for two years, I thought that they became, like most champions, really respected.

That Game 6 win in Boston, I think people really ‑‑ they are down 3‑2, to go into Boston, to have LeBron James play such a dominant game and win that, after coming back in the previous series down 2‑1 to Indiana and Dwyane and James played so spectacularly; and then in the Finals, down one game to nothing and went four straight against a great Oklahoma City team.  I think those three straight comebacks really were respected by most basketball fans, and I think that changed the dynamic on how Miami was viewed.

And then going into this year, being the defending champion, winning 27 in a row; again, I think all that negativity from the average fan is way in the past.

Q.  What do you think Popovich and Spoelstra think about having to be interviewed during the game and what do you think of that concept?  Do you think it’s a gimmick? 

VAN GUNDY:  Well, I think there’s no coach that looks forward to it.  I think some hide it better than others.  I don’t consider it a gimmick.

But I also don’t ‑‑ because they are distracted and they are trying to, you know, get to their time‑out huddle to do what their job is ‑‑ I used to like it when they had the boom mics in the huddle because you didn’t have to do anything different.  I mean, the mic was different in there but you as a coach didn’t have to do anything different.  And because they are distracted, I don’t think those are particularly revealing.

I think what would be as good is interviewing the head official; what does he see what’s happening in the first quarter.  You know, what are they looking for; what is the scouting report on these two teams.

And you know, like when my brother did it, and sometimes with Pop does it, I think it would be just as interesting interviewing a random fan, because they are just not into it.  It’s almost become funny how short Gregg is.  I think he thinks he’s [not] getting paid by the word, because really, some of his stuff is very, very funny; short, and to the point.

Q.  You coached against Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich many years ago.  Are you blown away by the longevity in a league in which referendums are passed down each season and where people like them were able to stay this relevant, this contemporary, this long?

VAN GUNDY:  Well, sustained greatness is the hardest greatness to achieve in any line of work.  And to see Duncan playing so well at this age speaks to his level of dedication, but I also think it shows his willingness to change.

So the offense has become more and more pick‑and‑roll centric versus. So if the team had not bought that change, I don’t think they or he would be nearly as effective.

When Gregg Popovich and the Spurs got that first pick right with Tim Duncan, you’re always looking for your best player to also embody the highest level of character.  So if you combine great talent and great character, which Duncan most certainly does; and then you combine it with great coaching, you have something that can stand on its own for a long period of time.

I don’t know if I could respect anyone more than I respect Gregg Popovich as a coach or Tim Duncan as a player.  I love his teamness.  I love how he deals with his teammates.  I love even how he deals with his frustration.

Think about it, Gregg Popovich sits him out down the stretch of a playoff game, and how many stars, Top‑10 players of all time, would not happily, but would accept that decision and allow Gregg Popovich to do what he thought was best for the team in that situation.  A lot of stars would try to hijack that situation and make it about how they were disrespected.  You never hear that with Tim Duncan, and I have such great respect for how he’s conducted himself.

Parker and the Spurs have continuity (FE)

Parker and the Spurs have continuity – and talent (FE)

Q.  The idea of great men make great organizations; you worked for Pat Riley, obviously seen what Popovich has done.  Is this a testament to the owners putting the right people in charge and how much difference that makes for an organization?

VAN GUNDY:  Well, every great ownership or every great team has great leadership and that starts with great ownership.  You look at the two owners, Peter Holt and Micky Arison, I don’t think you could have two better owners in the Finals; humble, not seeking the limelight for the success of their organization, and then the two men in charge in Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich, tremendous; and then the people that those great leaders hire in Eric Spoelstra and R.C. Buford, and then the people those people hire.  So you have people that stand for something, they stand for putting great people around them.

Obviously talent is important, but talent without basketball character will not put you in a position to sustain your excellence, and that’s exactly what both of these teams have done:  Sustained excellence because they have the right pieces in place.

Q.  What is your level of understanding of Dwyane Wade’s injured knee, how hurt is he in your mind?  And two, could you contrast the two coaches in these Finals, and are they alike or different, and if you were filling in one of those boxes that if you were evaluating a team forward, backcourt, centre, would you check Popovich’s box as the one that San Antonio has the advantage because of his experience?

VAN GUNDY:  To Wade and Miami’s credit, they are not talking about whatever health issues he may be having.  Now, the media are trying to give him the excuse on a nightly basis, but he’s not biting, and I have great respect for that.  And I truly have no idea if he’s fine or if he’s a little bit unhealthy or a lot unhealthy.  I have no idea.

I know this, though:  San Antonio is not overlooking him.  He played a dominant effort game last night.  The six offensive rebounds, the cuts to the rib; I think he’s figured out how to be successful even when he didn’t feel totally comfortable offensively.

As far as who gets the checked box with coaches, I’ve always laughed at that a little bit, because so much of who gets the checked box and who has been around longer; listen, most coaches are great.  Popovich obviously has had the opportunity to do it for longer.

But if you give Spoelstra 17 years with LeBron James, which may be a little hard, because I think James will be in his mid‑40s; but if you did that with a great player with great character, he would also have that long period of success.

So one thing do I know:  It’s easier to talk about how they are similar versus how they are dissimilar.  They are both going to the Hall of Fame.  They both have tremendous respect from the coaches they coach against, and they both have a level of humility that I believe shows NBA coaching in the most positive light possible.  The one difference is Eric was going to be a spy in the Soviet Union (laughter).

Q.  Do you see this playing out as a physical battle or San Antonio, if they are going to win, they have to be physical like Indiana was?

VAN GUNDY:  Well, I just don’t think too many teams play big anymore, so they can’t really be physical, and the NBA rules really don’t allow it as much.  But I think the beauty of San Antonio’s roster construction is that they can play big with Splitter and Duncan, or they can downsize, make more four‑out, one‑in type of action, with Matt Bonner and Diaw.  So I think that flexibility gives them the ability to adapt to whatever the game situation calls for.

The hardest thing in the NBA is to find, you know, the best player that you can build around or best players, and in San Antonio’s case, it’s Duncan, Parker and to a lesser extent now, Ginobili.  And then it’s as important ‑‑ and this is where San Antonio has thrived:  It’s surrounding them with the pieces that specific roles that you need to win, and they have done a remarkable job.  R.C. Buford and his staff, to me, have done a remarkable job in picking the right guys to go around the best players.

Q.  Popovich and LeBron have expressed a lot of respect for each other over the years.  I was just curious, as a coach, the level LeBron is at right now, is there anything that a coach can design over a period of, say, a week or ten days, that Popovich has had to make somebody more uncomfortable for somebody who is playing at a level that LeBron is playing?

VAN GUNDY:  Well, I think you go back to your base defence and your habits, and I think the only thing that ever makes a star uncomfortable is the individual match‑ups.

If you have a guy that has the belief, the instincts, the basketball IQ, the mental toughness it’s going it take to withstand the assault that he’ll bring, the length; so all those characteristics, you have a guy like that that wants the challenge.  And if you have a guy like that or a couple guys like that, then you can do a couple things.  Not anything he hasn’t seen but to try take away what he does the very best, you can try to do that.

But it starts with who do you have to matchup and who wants to be locked into that head‑to‑head battle.  And then the scheme is almost secondary.

But the thing about San Antonio is they have good habits defensively.  I love Kawhi Leonard.  He is like the human mute button:  He doesn’t say a lot, but his game talks very loudly.  He’s improved dramatically offensively.  He’s always been ‑‑ he came into the league an aggressive defender, and so I think they have a matchup that gives them a chance.

Now, you’re not obviously stopping LeBron James, but you want to try to at least make him work for it, reduce his efficiency somewhat.  You know, similar to Chicago; I think he shot like 43 percent against Chicago.  Most people would go home and celebrate that if they shot 43 percent against a great Chicago defence, but that’s the small reduction in efficiency that you’re looking for against a great player to try to swing the pendulum your way in any one game.

Q.  Chris Andersen … Can you describe the value of the X‑factorness of the Birdman?

VAN GUNDY:  Do I have to call him ‘Birdman’?  All right, I’m going to stay with Andersen.

Well, listen, he plays really hard and with great energy, and he does it every night.  And energy and effort is an NBA skill.  Consistent energy and effort is hard to find in big guys, and then the added skill that he has is, he can catch and finish.  He has good hands.  He finishes at the rim.

And he has some things he doesn’t do as well obviously.  He doesn’t play huge minutes, but his minutes that he does play are impactful, and it was a big, big acquisition when they got him, and it was ‑‑ everybody saw it as a gamble when they did it, and it’s turned into a stroke of genius.

Q.  My question is just about maybe the perception of Pop ‑‑ I remember when Pop got some brush back for naming himself the coach when it was going bad in ’95 or ’96, whatever it was and the perception of Spoelstra when he started was just a Riley puppet and LeBron sort of landed in his lap a couple years later.  Do either of these guys get the appreciation level that you might think they deserve?

Erik Spoelstra - Miami Heat - October 23, 2012

Spoelstra’s got talent (ESPN Images)

VAN GUNDY:  Well, I think Pop does.  But I think that whole notion that, you know, well, if you add Tim Duncan ‑‑ name me a coach in any sport who didn’t have a great player attached to their name.  I mean, of course.  But the quality that I admire so much about both guys is that they are able to get the most out of that great talent.

And I think because Pop has done it for so very long, I think he does get the credit he deserves.  I mean, this is one of the great coaches to ever coach a team sport.  The longevity, the creativity, the ever‑evolving change in their roster and also who is the best and featured player on their roster; I think their ball movement sets a great standard for NBA teams to try to achieve.

And most importantly, I love the class that they demonstrate when they play.  I love how they handle winning.  I love how they handle losing, and I think that starts from the very top with ownership and obviously Pop.

Eric to me has never gotten in his short time, the credit that he deserves, particularly those first two years that he took over.  He’s taken over in a pretty down period in Miami Heat basketball, and with Haslem and Wade, Wade obviously being his best player, but the cornerstone of Haslem, that they were able to win as much as they did the first two years showed his true greatness in coaching.

And then how he’s done these last three years, now being in the Finals three consecutive years, and actually delivering more than ever could have been expected with James; and to reach three consecutive Finals is an incredible feat.

And Eric is still in the phase where he gets more blame for their losses than credit for their wins, but he’s going to the Hall of Fame.  He’s that good.  His even‑keel demeanour, his humility, I think helps him really get the most out of his best players and you know, it’s fun to watch his teams, fun to watch Pop’s teams.  I just love the grace and humility both teams play with.

Q.  Do you think that players such as LeBron and Duncan, how do they view their own legacies and how do you view their legacies?

VAN GUNDY:  Well, I think the really good ones don’t start skipping steps and start thinking of how they are going to be viewed till long after they call it a career.

So I think, you know, they are just locked into the present moment that it is very hard to do what they have done, and one of the reasons they have been able to do what they have done is because they have stayed in the present moment.

I think from my viewpoint of them, I mean, they are going to go down as two of the greatest to ever play.  Duncan’s longevity has been incredible.  His ability to come in as a power forward and then evolve into this centre, you know, I think is a testament to just his willingness to adapt and change to the changes in the NBA game and their roster and how they play the game offensively.

I think that, you know, what you’re always looking for in the great players is not only how great they were individually, how much team success they had, but also how they handled themselves under the everyday scrutiny and I think both guys have done a remarkable job with that.

Watch exclusive coverage of every game of the NBA Finals, live on ESPN UK, starting on Friday morning at 1.30am.


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