While LeBron James and Kevin Durant will be the most glamorous matchup of the 2012 NBA Finals, the most important head-to-head battle will occur between two men who won't make contact except for during the postgame handshakes.
Erik Spoelstra and Scott Brooks have two different approaches to running the show from the sideline, and the slight tweaks they make on the whiteboards should make the difference during the final round of the postseason.
If Brooks is able to continue to motivate his troops successfully, we'll see Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and the rest of the Oklahoma City Thunder emerge victorious, potentially ushering in a new dynasty.
On the opposite sideline, Spoelstra will be looking to quiet the critics while x-ing and o-ing his way past his suited-up foe to help LeBron win his first ring.
Reasons for Criticism
Both coaches have received their fair share of criticism throughout their tenures at the helms of their respective teams. Typically, each one is ignored until it's crunch-time. Then, if it doesn't go well, it's scapegoat time.
Brooks is criticized for idling away on the sideline as Russell Westbrook takes over the game, for better or for worse, and Kevin Durant passively stands on the sideline, hoping instead of demanding that his point guard decides to put the ball in the hands of the greatest scorer in the NBA.
On the other hand, people find fault with Spoelstra for either clashing with his players—specifically Dwyane Wade in recent weeks—or over-thinking the end of the game and not letting Wade or LeBron take over and win the game as individuals.
In a way, these criticisms are fairly emblematic of the philosophies employed by the coaches throughout the games. While Brooks prefers to use clichés and motivate his players towards being the best they can be (if I may use a cliché of my own to hammer home the point), Spoelstra is the tactician who tries to emulate Gregg Popovich and out-think all of his opponents.
The Heat's sideline leader does occasionally struggle to make in-game adjustments, especially when the half-court offense stagnates, but he's a brilliant defensive coach. In fact, Spoelstra is the single most underrated head coach in the NBA because every mistake he makes is thrust under a microscope.
In the media machine that is South Beach, everything Spo does is dissected and overanalyzed, but only when it's apparent that he has his hands involved in the outcome. When the Miami Heat win games, it's solely because of the players, but when they lose, Spoelstra is a convenient scapegoat.
How They Got Here
He should be getting a lot more respect than he does, thanks to his willingness to stick with rotations that work, no matter how harsh the criticism may be. Spoelstra understands the concept of small sample size, even if some of his critics don't.
Brooks is getting the proper recognition right now as one one of the best young coaches in the game. This is primarily due to his out-thinking of Popovich during the Western Conference finals, in which he always seemed to have the proper counter to Pop's tweaks and adjustments. If ever a coach has plied his trade like a chess master, always thinking ahead and ready for each and every situation, it was Brooks during the last series.
At the end of the day, both coaches like to run offenses that appear quite similar. They run pick-and-rolls with their best players (as do all the coaches in the NBA at this point), and prefer to let their offenses thrive in one-on-one situations and isolation plays. It may not be what they prefer, but it's what you do when you coach James, Wade, Durant, Westbrook and Harden.
Those players and the plays they make in isolation will undoubtedly draw the most attention, fill up the highlight reels and provide the most discussion fodder. However, the matchup between Spoelstra and Brooks, as well as the subtle tweaks they make during timeouts and between games, will be what decides the Finals.