When Spoelstra and Popovich face off, the respect is clear

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San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, left, talks with official Dedric Taylor, right, during the first half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat, Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

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.