He grew up in Portland and basketball is in his blood. He wasn’t exactly a big-name recruit before he played collegiately in the West Coast Conference. He took the winding road to be a trainer, guided by one of the legendary bosses of the gangs. And last summer he was part of the brains that helped Team USA win Olympic gold.
That is the story of Erik Spoelstra.
That is also the story of Ime Udoka.
There is enormous respect between these two men, who have known each other for decades and have deep ties. Spoelstra coaches the Miami Heat, Udoka is in his first season with the Boston Celtics, and one of the two will be representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. Game 1 for the Eastern title is Tuesday night, with the top seed Heat hosting the second-best in the conference, the Celtics.
“We have great respect for what they’ve done during the regular season, developing the right habits,” said Spoelstra, who is in his 14th season after taking over as Miami’s coach from season-old Pat Riley. Hall of Fame. “And like I said, this is the way it had to be, the two teams that were the most consistent and like the best in the East most of the year, and we’re going to meet in the conference finals to determine who’s the best”.
The Heat needed five games to get past Atlanta in Round 1, then six to knock out Philadelphia in the Eastern semifinals. Boston swept Brooklyn in the first round and then ended Milwaukee’s seven-game reign as NBA champions in the other semifinal, which ended Sunday.
It is a rematch of the 2020 East finals, which took place in the bubble at Walt Disney World, when Miami beat Boston 4-2 to earn their spot in the NBA Finals. That was the third loss for the Celtics in the East finals in a four-year period, and some of the guys who suffered those losses, like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, are the point guard of Boston today.
“This is a group that has what it takes to get the job done,” Brown said. “I feel like everything we’ve been through — all the battles and challenges and adversity we’ve been through this season, as well as beating the defending champions — I think we’re ready. I think we are ready to take the next step, we just have to go out and take it.”
For its part, Miami, seeking its seventh trip to the NBA Finals and what would be its sixth in the past 12 seasons, isn’t looking back on victory in the bubble, veteran All-Star Jimmy Butler insisted.
“We just want to focus on the present, the now, the group of players that we have to go into battle with every day,” he said.