HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Both conference’s No. 1 teams made significant statements over the last two days.
It wasn’t just that the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs both convincingly knocked off their closest challengers. The greater message to the Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder — and the rest of the league — is how they did it.
LeBron James is the runaway MVP candidate. He had an amazing streak of scoring at least 3o points and shooting 60 percent in six consecutive games. Yet, the Heat only needed 13 points (5-for-10 shooting), seven assists and six rebounds from him in trouncing the Pacers 105-91 on Sunday.
It can be argued that James creates such headaches for opposing defenses that it allows his teammates to run free. Sure, OK, but it had to be demoralizing to the Pacers, the NBA’s top-ranked field-goal percentage defense, to hold James to a baker’s dozen yet surrender 55.9 percent shooting from the field.
San Antonio earned its 105-93 victory Monday over the Thunder by having its two healthy members of the the Big Three — Tim Duncan (13 points, eight rebounds) and Manu Ginobili (12 points, four assists, 24 minutes) — make way for this big three: Tiago Splitter (21 points, 10 rebounds), Kawhi Leonard (17 points, three steals) and Danny Green (16 points, 4-for-4 on 3s).
The precision, depth and discipline of the Spurs was on full display in shooting 52.4 percent against the Thunder’s second-ranked field-goal percentage defense. San Antonio’s improving defense also cranked up, making it difficult on NBA scoring leader Kevin Durant (26 points, 7-for-13 FGs) and Russell Westbrook (25 points, 11-for-27), the leaders of the West’s second-highest scoring offense at more than 106 points a game.
Does this mean we’re headed for a Spurs-Heat Finals come June? Not necessarily. But what if? Which team would hold the advantage?
How can anyone really know? These two teams are virtual strangers.
Since James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined forces in the 2010-11 season, the Heat and Spurs have played four times and none of those games featured lineups that would go head-to-head in a Finals series.
The fourth and most recent meeting was the infamous go-home game on Nov. 31 at Miami when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sent his Big Three plus Green home. A steamed David Stern slapped San Antonio for $250,000 for pitting its reserves against the defending champs on national TV. The Heat won an entertaining game with a late comeback.
The three previous games were all blowouts (2-1 in favor of Miami) with a head-scratching average margin of defeat of 27.1 points. Two of those were played in the span of 10 days in March 2011, and the third was their lone meeting in last season’s lockout-shortened schedule, a 120-98 Heat win on Jan. 20, with Ginobili injured and Richard Jefferson and DeJuan Blair in the Spurs’ starting lineup.
Miami has yet to see the remodeled Spurs after they dealt Jefferson to Golden State for Stephen Jackson and added Boris Diaw. The Heat barely know Green, San Antonio’s leading 3-point bomber (although he did score 20 points off the bench on 6-for-7 3-point shooting in that game nearly 14 months ago).
Fortunately, the Spurs and Heat do meet again on March 31 at San Antonio. It might be our first real chance to assess how these two clubs match up.
Even then, Tony Parker might still be out with a sprained ankle. Either way, there will be plenty of intrigue if the Spurs and Heat, two virtual strangers, get together in June.