By Rob Mahoney
SAN ANTONIO -- When it was announced that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers would all be absent from Miami's headlining game against the Spurs on Sunday, the implication was that a highly intriguing affair between two of the best teams in the league would be drained of its relevance and entertainment value.
That couldn't have been further from the case. The Heat earned a quick lead in a game that was supposedly beyond their reach, and after four well-executed and well-contested quarters from both teams, Chris Bosh connected on a straight-ahead, go-ahead three-pointer with 1.9 seconds remaining to give Miami an improbable 88-86 victory.
Miami moved three games ahead of San Antonio for the NBA's best record and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Both teams have nine games remaining, and the Heat also own the tiebreaker after sweeping the two-game season series.
It was an inspired performance from a team playing not only without its three primary shot-creators but also three of its most persistent perimeter defenders. The Heat were missing plenty from their lineup, and though coach Erik Spoelstra cited his team's depth before the game as evidence of its readiness for just such an occasion, no one would -- or could -- soon expect this group of spot-up shooters, effort rebounders and utility defenders to put together the kind of offense necessary to topple the high-functioning Spurs. But that the Heat did, led by Bosh's 23 points on just 15 shots, a flurry of ball movement and an incredible defensive effort that lowered the bar in terms of required scoring output.
"Our guys have a lot of pride," Spoelstra said. "The pride of being part of this organization, [of] being part of this opportunity, of wearing that Miami Heat jersey. It still represents the things that Pat Riley started years ago. It doesn't matter who the guys are in uniform -- [the jersey represents] the toughness, the defense, the commitment on that end.
"The guys really competed. They had to earn it and get some lucky breaks at the end, but that's basketball."
There is a tendency in the discussion of sports to treat anything improbable as a bit of a fairy tale -- some grand display of intangible qualities, or for the true believers, some turn of fortune from the basketball gods themselves. But a win like this one needn't draw solely on ambiguous, all-fitting devices like pride or will. The Heat's focus and effort were impressive and essential, but this win was also a victory of sheer execution -- the hallmark of Miami's play this season, and a trait that apparently lingers even in the absence of James and Wade.
Even without that pair, the Heat put together one of their finer defensive performances of the season, beginning with traps at the top of the floor to keep the explosive Tony Parker (12 points, 4-of-14 shooting, eight assists) in check.
While Miami was short-handed by its own choice, San Antonio didn't have that luxury. Manu Ginobili missed Sunday's game with a strained right hamstring, and in his absence the Spurs struggled to alleviate Parker and breathe life into one of the league's most beautiful, free-flowing offenses. Parker made the right plays and reads to beat Miami's concerted ball pressure, but the Heat seemed to be consistently ahead of the rotational curve -- always sliding into position just in time to prevent a corner three-point attempt or curtail a drive.
"[The Heat] did a great job in [defending] pick-and-rolls all night long," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "Without Manu, Tony's the guy who has to generate things for us and they pretty much took him out with all their double teams and hard hedges. We just didn't generate offense anywhere else except through Timmy [Duncan]."
That kind of defensive showing isn't indicative of "pride" so much as discipline. Bosh, Udonis Haslem and Shane Battier did a fantastic job of halting Parker's drives with hard traps, while Norris Cole -- who played a career-high 43 minutes as one of Miami's few available ball handlers -- did outstanding work in maintaining the trap without defending too aggressively. The Heat enveloped Parker without allowing him to wiggle free, and it was that feat alone that made this a winnable game under such strange circumstances. The Heat look and play like a dramatically different team without James and Wade in the mix, but those underlying principles -- and the goals of every possession -- remained unchanged.
"We didn't try to overdramatize it or overanalyze it," Spoelstra said, in reference to the absence of his two best players. "We just play our game. We have to defend and we have to compete. We probably won't score 110 points, but if we compete, defend and move the ball ... even some of the opportunities we missed -- those are shots we like, that's our game."
That ball movement was crucial for Miami (evidenced by 23 assists on 33 made field goals), as it smoothed over the ups and downs of Cole's high-usage night as a ball handler. But Spoelstra also made note of another point that's sure to be overlooked in the narrative of this win.
"[The Spurs] were really moving the ball on the other end with screens and triggers in a low-turnover game," Spoelstra said. "Both sides were playing very similar games. The ball was moving, guys were popping, it was very good basketball."
Even without San Antonio at anything resembling its offensive best, this was a tremendous display of passing between two of the best teams in setting up shooters on the weak side. The Heat were ultimately able to get away with their consistent traps against Parker by recovering to control dangerous shooters just in time to contest them, but that doesn't mean the Spurs weren't making the right passes or carrying out their potent offensive style.
Scoring just 76 points won't soon be deemed acceptable by a coach as exacting as Popovich, but Parker was still able to draw two defenders, quality shots were found for San Antonio's legion of sharpshooters and Kawhi Leonard even had a nice outing off the dribble en route to 17 points and 11 rebounds. The problem was that even the Spurs' extra-passing fervor couldn't draw the ball through the net on makeable shots, as the team that ranks third in three-point percentage made only 7-of-24 (29.2 percent). Miami deserves ample credit for all its hard work in defensive recovery. But Leonard, Danny Green and Gary Neal, in particular, missed a slew of shots that could have turned the outcome in an instant.
This was a nice achievement for the Heat under the circumstances, a delightful outing overall and a night in which the Spurs suffered through the injury of an essential player against a tremendously thorough defense. But San Antonio was a Duncan hook shot, a final stop or a random bounce away from wrapping up the game in the binary result expected, even if the Spurs didn't dominate the incomplete Heat in the way many suspected they might. A slightly different outcome simply has a way of breeding a much different story, though it would make Miami's execution no less crisp and San Antonio's troubles without Ginobili no less apparent. Bosh's final jumper wrapped up the Heat's charming turn as underdogs with a game-winning bow, but let's not be so entranced by the packaging to overlook the substance that lies beneath.
"At the end of the day, it's a make-or-miss league," Spoelstra said. And that it is, through coachspeak and all. We were treated to a compelling Heat victory on Sunday, but of much greater importance was a process that existed on both sides of the ball, with two of the NBA's finest teams at once exalting in victory and toiling in defeat.