SAN ANTONIO -- Eight months later, it’s still difficult to discern which element nagged the Miami Heat most back then.
Was it the noise?
Or the numbers?
In customary fashion after big home playoff wins, many San Antonio Spurs fans had filled the streets and were banging pots and pans to celebrate being just one victory from the franchise’s fifth NBA title after the Spurs beat the Heat in Game 5 of the Finals this past summer.
But the more annoying noise for the Heat was the line of questions they took, facing the brink of elimination and a disastrous end to their season. And then there were the numbers.
The Spurs had just shot 60 percent from the field to obliterate Miami’s defense in a 114-104 victory that gave them a 3-2 series lead. And history revealed that the Game 5 winner of a series that was tied 2-2 had gone on to win the NBA championship 20 out of 27 times.
“We’re going to see if we’re better prepared for this moment,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said then.
Of course, those days of uncertainty last summer are long gone now for the Heat, who rallied to win the last two games of the series back in Miami to secure their second straight NBA title. But, as stunning as Ray Allen's clutch 3-pointer was in Game 6 and as remarkably efficient as LeBron James was in the Game 7 clincher, it was the moments after Game 5 that proved most pivotal for Miami.
When the Heat enter the AT&T Center for Thursday’s game against the Spurs, it will be their first trip back to San Antonio since June 16, 2013. That’s the date James, Chris Bosh and Wade left the arena facing elimination and speculation that their run as teammates might be over.
This time, the Heat return with a completely different vibe as they look to regroup from their first loss in nine games and fine-tune for a postseason run they hope will end with a third consecutive championship. But if there’s any place in the league that serves as a reminder heading down the stretch of the resolve necessary for Miami to push through any obstacles, it’s San Antonio.
After Tuesday’s loss in Houston, the Heat had a full day off in San Antonio on Wednesday to get reacquainted with the place before Thursday’s game. It remains a city they’d just as soon forget.
“It’s memories,” said James, who on Wednesday was named the league’s Eastern Conference Player of the Month. “We just played them in the Finals. Obviously, just going there is always a place of horrors. I haven’t had a lot of success there in my career. But it’s always fun going against a very, very well-coached, well-machined organization and team with so many great players.”
Barring any late developments, the Heat and the Spurs will have the core of their respective rotations available Thursday for the first time since Game 7 of the Finals. The Heat took the first meeting of the season with a 113-101 victory Jan. 26 in Miami, but the Spurs were without three injured starters.
The Spurs played all five of their starters from the Finals in Tuesday’s 122-101 win in Cleveland, with All-Star point guard Tony Parker in his second game back from a six-game absence to address injuries. It was one of the best performances of the season for San Antonio, which had 39 assists on 43 field goals.
The Heat (43-15) and Spurs (44-16) always have had plenty in common beyond their respective runs last year through the postseason. Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich are the league’s two longest-tenured coaches with their teams, and they lead two of the NBA’s most decorated cores.
But they share more than recent history. The Heat and Spurs have the second-best records in their respective conferences and sit 1½ games back of the No. 1 seeds with six weeks left in the regular season. Both also have won eight of their past 10 games and have overcome some recent nagging injuries.
Nearly a year has passed, but not much has changed between these perennial contenders. That’s why the Heat had little interest in looking back to last season when it’s a strong possibility they could be looking down the road toward another June meeting with the Spurs in a Finals rematch.
“We don’t necessarily have fond memories; we did drop two of three there,” Spoelstra said of losing Games 3 and 5 in San Antonio in June. “The last game we had there was a tough one. That was probably the worst game we had over there. We had to really be able to collect ourselves, to be able to have that energy [needed] to win two games at home.”
The last time the Heat were on the Spurs' court, Manu Ginobili emerged from a postseason slump to finish with 24 points and 10 assists in Game 5. It was also the night Danny Green set the Finals records for 3-pointers by making six to bring his series total to 25 through five games. San Antonio had all five starters score in double figures, which prompted Spoelstra to rip his team’s effort afterward.
“At times, they were just picking one guy out at a time and going at us mano a mano,” Spoelstra said in his postgame comments. “That’s got to change.”
James then declared that Miami’s effort would be better in Game 6 out of necessity. Still, the Heat needed a miraculous finish -- and got one by rallying from a five-point deficit in the final 20 seconds -- to force a Game 7. When Popovich brought the Spurs to Miami for a preseason game, he told reporters he still has nightmares about how the final two games played out at AmericanAirlines Arena this past June. So evidently, there’s enough heartache on each opposing team’s home court to spread around.
The Spurs and Heat are two of the oldest teams in the league, although James, Wade and Bosh are much younger overall than Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. Still, James suggests it’s always foolish to count out the Spurs based on their age. James said the Boston Celtics were the same way when skeptics thought they were over the hill in those last seasons with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
“I never buy into that,” James said. “I’ve always been asked about that. I never bought into that. I never bought into that with the Celtics team with Ray and KG and all of them. Everybody talked about they were too old, and next thing you know they’re in the Finals again.”
For now, the Heat aim to shake off Tuesday’s 106-103 loss in Houston and avoid being swept on the Texas leg of a three-game trip that wraps up Sunday in Chicago. Wade said the Heat can overlook the June losses in San Antonio and focus on their road victory there in Game 4 instead.
“We have to step up to the challenge,” Wade said. “We lost the first one on this road trip. And [San Antonio] is a place where, obviously, everyone has a tough time playing. But we’ve shown that we can win there. We’ve got to go in there and play a complete game.”