The final seconds of regulation in Game 6 of the NBA Finals might have broken the spirit of some teams.
What was perceived as a miraculous ending for the Heat was viewed quite differently by Spurs greats Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Gregg Popovich. With the window of opportunity closing on their careers, the veteran players and their coach walked away from that game, and ultimately the series, feeling like they let a championship slip away.
For weeks — months even — Popovich told reporters he was waking up at night in cold sweats after experiencing the recurring nightmare of Chris Bosh’s offensive rebound and Ray Allen’s three-pointer. Was it all a little embellishment or sarcasm by the Spurs’ coach? Who’s to say? This much is certain though. San Antonio has fully recovered from its role in that historic series and now seems to be playing the game of basketball better than ever.
The Spurs (44-16) trail the Oklahoma City Thunder by one game in the loss column in the Western Conference standings and have won seven of their past eight games entering Thursday’s game against the two-time defending champion Heat. When LeBron James peers through his mask at AT&T Center, he will see a rejuvenated team of veteran players gunning for a chance to extend their dynasty.
But to hear James tell it, he never doubted for a second that the Spurs’ aging core wouldn’t be back near the top of the standings after last season’s collapse in the Finals.
“I never buy into that,” James said Tuesday when asked about older teams lacking the athleticism to compete for titles. “I’ve always been asked about that. I never bought into the Celtics team with Ray (Allen) and (Kevin Garnett) and all those guys and talking about them being too old because then they were in the Finals again.”
Like the Spurs, the Heat (43-15) is second in its conference standings and trails the Eastern Conference-leading Indiana Pacers by 1 ½ games.
With the conference races coming into focus, this first game for the Heat in San Antonio since the 2013 Finals is more than just a matchup of previous championship-round opponents. The Heat missed a chance to close the gap on the Pacers in the standings Tuesday and doesn’t want to miss another opportunity.
“You have to win every night,” Dwyane Wade said. “We just want to continue to play well.”
Of course, that will be difficult in San Antonio. The Heat managed to take just one game against the Spurs on their home court in the 2013 Finals. All-time during the regular season, the Heat is 3-22 against the Spurs in San Antonio.
“It’s memories, of course, because we just played them in the Finals, and, obviously, just going there is always a place of horror,” said James, who was named Eastern Conference Player of the Month on Wednesday. “I haven’t had a lot of success there in my career, but it’s always fun going against a very, very, very well-coached organization with so many great players.”
Former Heat summer-league player Patrick Beverley provided the Rockets with an overwhelming perimeter presence Tuesday against Miami and helped limit Heat guards Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole to a combined 3 of 12 from the field.
The Heat released Beverley after its 2010 preseason training camp. He played in Europe before returning to the NBA and eventually beat out Jeremy Lin for a starting spot this season. Beverley was especially relentless against Cole, who the Heat drafted in 2011 one season after cutting Beverley.
“You play against a team that you worked out for, or you felt like you should have been there, or they made a mistake by letting you go, you try to prove something,” Heat co-captain Udonis Haslem said. “And I guess he came out with a chip on his shoulder.”
Beverley taunted the Heat’s players and bench throughout the first half, and Haslem took exception to the behavior. Walking off the court, Haslem gave Beverley some unsolicited advice after the first-half buzzer.
“It wasn’t nothing personal,” Haslem said. “I got a lot of love for Pat Beverley, but he was just looking over at our bench and talking and always got something to say. We’re cool off the court, but in between the lines I don’t like it.”
Of course, the irony of the exchange was that Haslem, like Beverley, took the hard road to the NBA as a young player. Another veteran who appreciates good defense, Heat forward Shane Battier said Beverley “has been great” for the Rockets. A former Houston defensive mainstay, Battier called Beverley the team’s “engine that makes them go.”