Sunday's matinee brought a Finals rematch that wasn't. Miami is in somewhat different form from when these two teams last met, as the Heat's defense isn't yet of playoff quality and the offerings of Dwyane Wade on this particular day were an open question. San Antonio, on the other hand, was to revisit its Finals loss without three of the most important players in that series: Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, and Danny Green, all of whom were inactive due to injury.
Miami made more out of its circumstances, as a big scoring performance from Chris Bosh (24 points, 9-10 FG) and heady playmaking from LeBron James (18 points, seven rebounds, six assists) opened up a balanced Heat offense. Coupled with a few stout defensive stretches, that was enough for Miami to separate cleanly in the second half, wrapping up the rematch 113-101 without need for dramatic flair.
• It's still amazing how quickly Miami can shift gears against top-tier competition. Countless column inches, blog posts, TV segments, and radio hits have been dedicated to the notion that the Heat might be "coasting," and at the very least, the defending champs are capable of far more than they've shown on a regular basis this season. Nevertheless, the actualized version of this talented team shows itself in surges – as was the case in the third quarter on Sunday.
The undermanned Spurs had executed admirably in the first half, virtually regardless of which stars or role players were on the floor; an open shot was but an extra pass away, with the Heat defense largely a step behind in its rotational responsibilities. San Antonio never quite managed to push its way into the lead, but timely scores and high offensive focus also prevented Miami from building more than a 10-point advantage at any point in the opening half – a manageable margin for a veteran team on the road.
But then the third quarter upended any measured optimism the Spurs might have held, as it took just five minutes for the Heat to turn a competitive game into a near-blowout. With 8:44 remaining in the frame, Tim Duncan finished a shot at the rim to pull San Antonio within four points. A few dunks, stops, and open jumpers later, Miami had pushed the margin to 16 points with 3:57 still to go in the quarter. The Heat never looked back, and the game was so out of reach by the time the fourth quarter rolled around that Tim Duncan (23 points, 9-13 FG, three rebounds) and Tony Parker (11 points, seven assists) sat through it in its entirety.
There was no dramatic takeover and no palpable shift. Just the reassuring click of Miami's cogs sliding into place, with Bosh propelled into a primary scoring role due to the team's precise ball movement. From that fateful 8:44 mark until the end of the third, Bosh scored eight points to the Spurs' 11, while his Heat teammates filled in the gaps with open shots and trips to the foul line. Moreover, Miami finally reached a place defensively where the help could be trusted to be in place and in time – a marked difference for a team that has sagged on that end through wavering focus and experimental changes.
This is who the Heat are, and likely will be come playoff time. They've suffered their share of curious losses, had inexplicable defensive lapses, and stumbled at times through the periodic absences of Wade. Yet this gear – the one that so quickly separated Miami from one of the best teams in the West on Sunday – is far too close and far too accessible to make much fuss about their iffy play in January.
• San Antonio is one of the deepest and most deeply prepared teams in the league, but even those strengths have their limits. The Spurs have the reserve resources to slide useful players in for the injured Leonard, Splitter, and Green, but not without cost. Doing so demands that Boris Diaw (15 points, three assists, three turnovers) draw the primary defensive assignment of guarding LeBron James, and while that matchup has actually worked well for San Antonio in these teams' recent meetings, the Spurs were then left without much answer in those instances where Diaw wasn't in the game or in position to check James.
This was a pretty consistent problem in transition on Sunday, where Diaw just didn't have the raw speed to keep up with James on the break. He worked hard to get back in position to help his team defend, but in many cases one of the Spurs' perimeter players -- undersized with the absences of Leonard and Green -- was forced to pick up James as to offer some resistance. Miami then settled into a balanced halfcourt formation and set up James, necessitating a Spurs double team and opening up a shot elsewhere on the floor.
San Antonio also had to double James on the catch deliberately at various points, if only as a means of keeping him guessing. That pressure was responsible for a few of James' four turnovers for the game, but also activated Miami's offense by freeing up quality shooters for James to find.
It seems safe to say that things might have gone differently had Leonard, Splitter, and Green -- all important defensive players -- been available. Miami might not have shot 58.1 percent from the field (and 42.1 percent from beyond the arc) with those three healthy and in uniform. Bosh might not have seen quite so many open jumpers, as Tim Duncan wouldn't have been so consistently stretched as a help defender. San Antonio would be longer and more athletic in all the places that matter most against Miami, paring down the necessity of double teams and allowing the Spurs to play truer to their defensive principles.
All of that matters a great deal, and completely alters the dynamic between two teams otherwise proven to play one another closely. There's just no way -- narratively or strategically -- around San Antonio's injuries at this point.
• Dwyane Wade wasn't exactly explosive in his first game played since Jan. 17, but still made helpful contributions to the Heat's winning effort. The careful management of Wade's knees will need to continue through the regular season, it seems, as Miami's second star still expresses concern over his level of recurring soreness. That didn't stop him from doing his part on Sunday though, as Wade took on a reserve role for the first time since 2008 and chipped in eight points, five assists, and three rebounds in 24 minutes. As has often been the case in recent years, most of that production came by way of smart, improvisational reads rather than displays of dominant athleticism.
Wade certainly looked a bit stiff, though that was to be expected in returning from his first extended absence of the season. From here, the Heat can afford to take their time; Erik Spoelstra would no doubt prefer all hands on deck to fine-tune some problems in defensive execution, but Miami is privileged with a secure, top-two standing in the East despite its lineup inconsistency. Keeping Wade healthy for the long haul remains the priority of all priorities for the Heat, no matter if he's taking it slow as a reserve or sitting out games entirely.