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Congratulations, sort of: After Riley built Miami's 'Big 3,' Popovich called to tip his cap

When the Miami Heat pulled off what so many thought was unthinkable and signed LeBron James and Chris Bosh to play alongside Dwyane Wade three summers ago, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was impressed.

So he called Heat President Pat Riley to say exactly that.

"He's been a competitor, obviously, his whole career since he was a player in college and beyond," Popovich said Wednesday, the last day of practices before his Spurs and the Heat will open the NBA Finals with Game 1 in Miami. "He put together a team fairly, within the rules, that is a monster. So why wouldn't he get credit for that? Why wouldn't you congratulate him for that? So I did."

Not many around the league did, of course.

When Riley and other Heat executives like managing general partner Micky Arison and senior vice president Andy Elisburg put together the plan that they thought would land James and Bosh, season-ticket holders were sold on the idea of a Heat trying to build a dynasty.

Now with three straight finals appearances, and with a chance at a second straight title, they might be on their way to building one. And in Popovich's eyes, Miami's success only makes Riley's career look even more storied now.

"I always respected his competitiveness and how he ran things in New York and L.A. and so on and so forth," Popovich said. "And as an executive he's done the same thing. He lets people do what they do, puts things together, and he put together a hell of a team. And so I called him to thank him because I respect him so much — not to thank him, but to congratulate him."

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CHASING HISTORY: The Heat have a chance to finish with one of the best full-season records in NBA history.

If Miami beats San Antonio and wins the NBA title, the Heat will wrap up this season with 82 wins, including playoffs, which would match the third-most in the history of the league. Only the Chicago Bulls have ever topped 82 wins, doing so in the 1995-96 (87-13) and 1996-97 (84-17) seasons.

Boston has won 82 games twice, the Los Angeles Lakers won that many once and the Bulls also finished with 82 victories in 1991-92.

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LEONARD ON LEBRON: Chances are, the Spurs will use Kawhi Leonard often on defense against four-time NBA MVP LeBron James.

That's just fine with Leonard.

"I would rather guard the best guy on the floor," Leonard said. "I want to get better myself. Guarding him is going to make me a better player. I accept the challenge to go out there and play."

Leonard said he won't take much from how Indiana defended James in the Eastern Conference finals, since the teams have a different overall defensive game plan.

And he also thinks being on the NBA's biggest stage shouldn't be a reason to change how anyone plays.

"It's another game," Leonard said. "I don't think it's going to be any different. Everybody wants to compete to win a championship. People are competing at their highest level."

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BATTIER EAGER: Shane Battier went from being in the rotation to the end of the bench in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, after struggling with shot throughout the entire series.

He didn't play a single second in the clincher. But he's hopeful of getting a shot for the Heat in the NBA Finals.

"Obviously, as a competitor, it was tough," Battier said. "I'm not going to lie to you. It was maybe the toughest thing I've gone through as a competitor."

Battier said he hasn't been told what his role for the finals against San Antonio might be, but is preparing to play if Heat coach Erik Spoelstra calls his number.

"I support my teammates," Battier said. "And I know that my time will come."

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HASLEM'S TIME: Udonis Haslem never forgets where he comes from, since after all, he's a native of Miami.

More than that, though, he remembers being the overweight guy who played college ball for the Florida Gators and how many people told him he couldn't play in the NBA. Not only did he prove them wrong, but he's spent all 10 of his pro seasons so far with his hometown team.

He and Dwyane Wade have been together from the beginning, and as if a fourth trip to the finals isn't special enough, going there together again makes it something to savor even more.

"I was happy for him," Haslem said. "I was very happy. I told him ... something like that, if we quit, if we gave in every time the games got tough, every one of us, we wouldn't be here. Not saying he was going to quit. I wanted to remind him we both have had tough times on and off the court. And that's what made us who we are."

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NOTES: Spurs forward Manu Ginobili has not played against the Heat since March 14, 2011. He has missed the last three Heat-Spurs matchups, one with a broken left hand in January 2012, another when coach Gregg Popovich rested four San Antonio regulars last November, then the last meeting in March with a strained right hamstring. ... The Heat start the series just nine points away from 10,000 for the season, the third time in franchise history they'll reach that mark.