SAN ANTONIO — To most Americans “Remember the Alamo” is a famous battle cry they learned in middle school.
For the Heat, it might simply be something they’re trying to do.
With the shortened lockout schedule wiping out their trip to San Antonio last season and coach Gregg Popovich letting the air out of a marquee showdown four months ago, tonight’s game (NBA TV, pregame 6:30 p.m.) at the AT&T Center will be the first meeting between the key players of the NBA’s top two teams in more than 14 months and the first trip to the Alamo City by Miami’s Big Three since March 4, 2011.
Manu Ginobili is already a scratch from the Spurs’ lineup after suffering a hamstring injury in the first quarter of Friday night’s win over the Clippers.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has indicated that since his team’s 27-game win streak has been snapped, he’ll be looking to get some rest for his key players before the playoffs begin in three weeks. He sat out starting point guard Mario Chalmers on Friday night against the Hornets.
But first, it’s likely that a pair of No. 1 seeds in each conference — clearly the two best teams in the league this season — will have most of their frontline stars on the court to circle, jab and try to deliver the kind of meaningful blow that might still be felt if the Spurs and Heat meet up again in the NBA Finals.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh vs. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, minus Ginobili still carries the knockout punch feel of a heavyweight fight in the most anticipated regular season game in San Antonio in years.
“We haven’t played each other a lot,” Wade told reporters after Friday night’s win in New Orleans. “And that’s the Eastern and Western Conference, you don’t get a chance to see each other a lot until hopefully you meet at the end of June.”
“They play with a higher pace and a higher energy level at home,” said forward Shane Battier. “It’s a tough place. But it’ll be a good challenge for us.”
What’s at stake officially is still the race for the overall best record in the league and home-court advantage all the way through the playoffs. Miami’s 57-15 record is two games better than San Antonio, but a Spurs win would slice that in half, give them a 1-1 split of the season series and the tie-breaker (record against the opposite conference) should they eventually meet up with the Larry O’Brien Trophy on the line.
“You play all year trying to get home-court advantage,” said Popovich, “because that’s where you always feel most comfortable. But having said that, you don’t win championships without being able to win on the road.”
You’d be lucky to get the stoic Spurs, always a reflection of their never-let-them-see-you-sweat coach, to even admit they knew the Heat were next up on the schedule.
It’s the approach taken by second-year forward Kawhi Leonard, who’ll draw the main assignment of guarding James, who is likely on his way to a fourth MVP award, which would put him in the select company of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six), Michael Jordan (five), Bill Russell (five) and Wilt Chamberlain (four).
“I don’t think nothing of it, really,” said the 21-year-old Leonard. “It’s how I’ve been playing my whole life, guarding the best player on the other team.”
Of course, the first Heat-Spurs stirred up more than its share of controversy, debate and repercussion back on Nov. 29 when Popovich showed his disdain for the NBA schedule-maker by having Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Danny Green fly straight home from Orlando and miss the last stop (and a back-to-back) at the end of a six-game road trip at Miami. It had been a much anticipated and highly promoted national TV game on TNT. The club was fined $250,000 and reprimanded by commissioner David Stern for the stunt and yet a collection of Spurs understudies pushed the Heat stars to the limit in a 105-100 loss.
“People say, ‘Oh, he’s resting them,’ but it’s not about rest,” said Popovich. “It’s about being as healthy as possible at the end of the year.
“Not playing that fourth game in five nights, if you’ve got Tim Duncan’s knee and you’re at his age, might make him more ready to go at the end of the year. At lot of guys play 40-plus minutes to win now. We’re more concerned with later.”
While Miami is 2-22 all-time at the AT&T Center and took a 125-95 beating on Mar. 4, 2011 in the only other visit to San Antonio since the James-Wade-Bosh trinity was formed, it is more curiosity and honing their own game that is on the minds of the Heat.
“It’s always good to play the best and play against the best,” James said. “It’ll be an opportunity for us. We just want to get better. The game Sunday doesn’t define our season or how we go from there. We just want to continue to move forward.”
Perhaps to a historic June rematch that would be as memorable as the Alamo.