SAN ANTONIO — There are nights on the long NBA regular season grind that you circle on the calendar the day the schedule comes out.
Sunbelt climes during a long, cold, snowy winter. Cities with family and friends. Places like Staples Center in Los Angeles and Madison Square Garden in New York, where the spotlight is extra bright and the courtside seats are filled with A list celebrities.
Then there’s San Antonio, where it might be nice to sip a tasty margarita on the Riverwalk. But the hangover from a visit with the Spurs can feel like a mule kick to the head for the Miami Heat, which is why their first trip back to the AT&T Center (Thursday night at 8 ET on TNT) since The Finals last June is more apt to make most of them flinch than celebrate.
While they eventually wrapped up back-to-back championships by beating the Spurs in seven games, Miami won just once in the three games played in San Antonio in The Finals last season. LeBron James is just 1-4 all time in Finals games played in the Alamo City, having been swept by the Spurs when he was in Cleveland in 2007.
“There’s memories, of course,” said James. “We just played them in The Finals and obviously just going, there is always a place of horror. I haven’t had a lot of success there in my career. But it’s always fun going against a very, very well coached, very well-machined organization and team with so many great players. It will be fun.”
This has been another season when the Spurs, led by a 37-year-old Tim Duncan, 36-year-old Manu Ginobili and 31-year-old Tony Parker , were supposed to be too old to contend. Yet in spite of a rash of nagging injuries, San Antonio is 44-16, just 1 1/2 games behind the Thunder for the best record in the Western Conference.
“I never buy into that,” James said. “I always been asked about that. I never bought into that. I never bought into the Celtic team with Ray [Allen] and KG [Kevin Garnett] and those guys that they talked about was too old, and the next thing you know, they’re in the Finals again. So I never bought into it.”
Dwyane Wade shrugged.
“It’s another tough game for us,” he said. “We have to step up to the challenge. We lost the first one on the road trip [Tuesday in Houston], and that’s a place where obviously everyone has a tough time playing. But we’ve shown that we can win there, so we got to go in there and play a great game for 48 minutes to win it.”
It did take about all the Heat could summon to squeeze out the one win they needed at the AT&T Center last June. They got a 109-93 win in Game 4 that was sandwiched between a couple of their most dismal games of the entire playoff run. They were hammered 113-77 in Game 3 when the Spurs bombed them with 16 3-pointers and then lost 114-104 in Game 5. Those are the kinds of performances that stick with a coach much longer than the wins.
“We don’t necessarily have really good memories of there,” said Erik Spoelstra. “We did drop two out of the three. The last game that we had there was a tough one. It was probably the worst game that we had over there. We had to really collect ourselves to go and have that energy to go and win two games at home.
“But you know, the train goes on. We’ve got to collect ourselves. We’ve got to get some rest. We’re not making any excuses … They’ve dealt with a lot of adversity this season and yet you look at their record and they’re right there in the mix. It’s amazing.”
What might be more amazing is that Shane Battier is actually looking forward to getting back into the teeth of the Spurs vise.
“I always enjoy playing the Spurs,” Battier said. “It goes back to my Memphis days, my Rockets days, when I played a lot of games in San Antonio. Just because there’s no better mental challenge than playing the Spurs. Because they’re gonna put you in tough situations. It’s a thinking man’s game when you play the Spurs and that’s my kind of game.
“Ooooh, we knew last year it was going to be a very, very, very, very close series. That’s four ‘verys’ and it was probably closer than that. They’ve been the gold standard for a long time. It’s not so much physical with them. It’s the mental duress they put you under. To go through a series like that, when you come out you’re just exhausted, win or lose.”
The question is whether even NBA players and coaches and front office people ask the same question as the general public: When will the Spurs finally be too old?
“No question,” Battier said. “Yeah, you ask that all the time, every year. What’s in the water in San Antonio? The fact that they’ve done it for so long and everyone is just waiting for them to fall off and they haven’t — not that they care what everyone else thinks — it’s awesome. And I don’t have any answers.”