SAN ANTONIO — Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau often is compared to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
Both are driven, defensive-oriented winners. All that appears to separate the two are Popovich’s four championships, and he’s three games away from a fifth after the Spurs beat the Heat in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday.
But Spurs reserve Marco Belinelli, who played under Thibodeau with the Bulls last season, offered up a different perspective. Apparently, their jewelry collection isn’t all that sets them apart.
Popovich might be the more likely of the two to grab a beer and shoot the breeze.
“They are different a little bit,” Belinelli said. “Thibodeau is a great coach, but maybe Pop is more like a cool guy. He wants to speak with you, have a conversation, speak about everything, not just basketball.”
Not that chitchatting with your players leads to victories.
Belinelli found a comfort zone in Popovich’s system and has improved his offensive efficiency from a season ago.
Belinelli averaged 11.4 points in the regular season after his average had dipped to 9.6 with the Bulls in 2012-13. His numbers were up in every relevant statistical category, most notably his shooting, which went from 39.5 percent last season to 48.5 percent.
He appears to be more comfortable in San Antonio than he was with the Bulls. At least his numbers say so.
“Pop is great; he’s the best coach in the league,” Belinelli said. “A great person. So just happy to be a part of this system and play for him.
“My confidence is good. So Pop believes in me and the whole organization. I just try to be on the court and try to be aggressive.
“I spent a good year in Chicago, for sure. Thibodeau helped me a lot with my transition. But I feel really good here.
“[Thibodeau is] really focused. He’s really professional, and 24 hours a day, it’s just basketball, and that’s why he’s one of the best coaches in the league.”
Of course, that’s not to say that Thibodeau’s system is flawed or that his basketball-only mentality somehow overwhelms players.
Popovich is known for helping international talent such as the Italian-born Belinelli flourish. Teammate Danny Green says Belinelli is “crafty” and “annoying” because of his movement.
As far as their social skills, after talking to players on the Spurs and Heat, the more appropriate comparison to Thibodeau might be Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who gets far less credit than he deserves for what he has done in Miami.
“He’s a basketball 24-7 guy,” Heat guard Mario Chalmers said. “The only time I ever have a conversation with him, it’s about basketball.”
Note: In the hours after he left Game 1 with cramps, LeBron James drew plenty of criticism on social media, including from 49ers offensive tackle Jonathan Martin, who was traded by the Dolphins after being a target of bullying. Gatorade also weighed in on James, who endorses Powerade.
“What everybody has to say — you guys should know me by now — I don’t care, I really don’t,” James said Friday. “I really don’t care what people say about me. I don’t care about that sports group, the drink group that — I’m not even going to say their name.”