MIAMI – Every day, the rigors of the season tormented Pat Riley, the plane rides from city to city leaving him to absorb pages and pages of game plan, the office inside American Airlines Arena serving as refuge. Every home game for the Miami Heat, Riley looks out his office window after the morning shootaround, all the way until the game. Just a stare into life, an endless flood of thoughts rushing through his mind – about the night, the franchise, the hysteria around it all.
Riley followed his same routine on Thursday night, a walk into Game 7 of these memorable NBA Finals. Two minutes to tip, Riley climbed up the stairs, into his seat next to his wife and her friends. Long ago, he gave his wife a message she understood: Don’t say a word to me. Don’t bother me. Tell your friends I love them, but please don’t bother me. These games can eat at Riley, the ebb and flow flustering him.
“This is harder than coaching for me,” Riley said in a hallway late Thursday. “Every plane I’m on, I know the game plan. I know what our players are supposed to be doing in every situation, and …”
And he ponders how he’d help, how he could push Erik Spoelstra just a little more, how he could surely liven LeBron James in the game’s critical moments. No, Riley is merely the creator now, constructing a back-to-back champion out of the Heat and an impeccable roster around James.
James took his second Finals MVP with 37 points, 12 rebounds and four assists in the 95-88 win over the San Antonio Spurs, but there was Shane Battier draining daggers – six three-pointers for 18 points – and Chris Andersen admirably defending Tim Duncan using his waves of activity. There was Ray Allen in these playoffs further cementing his place as one of history’s best clutch shooters, and Mike Miller stepping into the starting lineup late in this run to floor space for James and Dwyane Wade.
Up and down the roster, James had everything he wanted: Star companions, the league’s most accomplished shooters, the coach whom Riley groomed, and a roster with meager flaws. James has a front office leader in Riley who surrounds him with whatever is necessary, an ownership willing to spend.
From last season to now, Riley sealed so many of the Heat’s flaws. Battier and Miller provided tremendous shooting a year ago, but everyone around the team knew they needed Allen. And when teams across the league looked past “Birdman” Andersen, Riley and Speolstra had been proactive to sign him.
Riley, 68, truly believed he was finished serving the Heat in 2003, when he stepped down as coach. It had been too grueling, too taxing, and he felt retirement near. Ten years later, three championships later, Riley has built a potential dynasty he wants to oversee until its dissolution – at least while this big three of James, Wade and Chris Bosh stays together.
“I just want this thing to keep going,” Riley said, the clock pushing well into early Friday morning. “I’m at an age right now where I’m ready to fly off somewhere, but I’m not going to. The lord has blessed me with a team that’s allowing me to grab onto its coattail for as long as they want to be together.”
With two straight championships under Riley, James shouldn’t ever feel he’s lacking a talented cast of players around him. Even when Wade – who scored 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds Thursday, who soared like he hasn’t in a long time – struggled in pain, the Heat’s role players covered it up. Even when Battier retires, when Allen and Miller eventually move on, there will still be players found to assume the parts James needs. Out of Riley’s creativity, his mind.
Even when James heads for free agency next summer, Riley has shown him he won’t spend his basketball life anywhere better, that the team he manages should forever be LeBron’s best option.
“This team is amazing,” James said. “The vision that I had when I decided to come here is all coming true.”
Sometimes, Riley needs people around to stabilize him and alleviate the palpable stress. His closest confidant, Heat senior vice president Andy Elisberg, keeps Riley’s sanity intact. Riley calls Elisberg his foundation, his partner who spends time researching all day, and credits him for crunching the math that ensured the Heat's free agency plans three summers ago.
From ownership to players, it all fabricates after Riley: Structure within a franchise, in a time when organization seems to go so unfulfilled.
“For Pat, obviously he’s the one who’s the steward who sets the standards of what we do as an organization, with Nick [Arison],” Elisberg told RealGM after a long embrace with Riley. “And everyone else is within that. Everyone’s very passionate, and winning is very important.
“That starts with the Arison family and Pat, the standard they set. You want everything to be right, and when it’s not, you don’t take it easily. It’s about making it better.”
Spoelstra started to lay the foundation of belief in those two years before the big three came together, and now he’s transformed into the elite of his profession, a respected coach who has managed egos, fluctuating play out of stars and helped turn James into an unstoppable force. In the post, James is as scary and as driven as any paint presence in the league. Last June, Wade had been adamant LeBron’s post game would simply reach new levels this season, and it did with his shooting.
When the mention of Spoelstra comes, a wide smile broadens Riley’s face. His roster, his hand-picked successor.
“It isn’t anything [Spoelstra’s] learned from me, learned from Stan [Van Gundy], and learned from everyone he’s studied, he’ll continue to evolve,” Riley said. “I know – I know – how much time and effort he puts in. He’s the first one here and the last one to leave in the night. Erik is a great, great, great coach.”
Three years ago, Riley sat rows into the crowd that greeted his assembled arrivals of James and Bosh, joining Wade. It was an over the top display, the shimmering lights and declarations heightening expectations for James and these Heat. For Riley, there’s no looking back to the excessive scene, but rather closure. “It’s all bulls--- now,” Riley said. “I wish we can stop talking about that.”
Soon, Riley will return to his office chair, staring out his window. The perils of the salary cap await the Heat, and still, Micky Arison made clear late Thursday he’ll keep spending whatever is needed, whatever Riley demands to keep a contender last. Even so, the question begs: Does Riley have the energy to direct this current core to its championship potential, year after year?
“Absolutely,” Elisburg told RealGM. “[Riley] wants to keep winning. … He’s enjoying it, enjoying tonight.”
Riley always said there’s winning or there’s misery, and there were times in these playoffs where the Heat appeared spiraling into misery. They trailed the Chicago Bulls 1-0 in the Eastern Conference semifinals, fell 2-1 to the Indiana Pacers in the conference finals, and were behind 2-1 in The Finals. Champions forever, these Heat promise to be back here next year – for a three-peat. Between now and then, Riley will be in that office, gazing out into his basketball past and present, carrying out a new plan to validate everything.
A soaked suit as he walked into the night, Pat Riley hugged every family member, every last Heat staffer. He smoothens all here: LeBron James’ decision, the cast around him. Heat executives call Riley the fabric of Miami’s structure, and the architect has a vision of this ride going on and on.