Playing the Spurs, especially at AT&T Arena, tends to feel like a drill. And not just in the sense of a dentist’s instrument, though that certainly, painfully applies. It feels like a drill in terms of testing your readiness for contention in a variety of ways, seeing if you’re really who you think you are.
So that’s what happened to the Heat here Wednesday night, in a 112-88 defeat that dropped Miami to a tie for fifth in the crowded center of the Eastern Conference.
What happened is what has happened to so many other opponents since March 12, 2014, the last time a visitor won a regular season game here, and that took overtime, and 57 points from Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving to do it.
The Heat’s flaws, over the course of the night got shown some light.
▪ Joe Johnson’s inability to impede Kawhi Leonard in any way, as Leonard scored 32 points in 24 minutes before bumping his knee.
No, there aren’t many more dynamic assignments than Leonard, who stifles you defensively and whose offensive repertoire has increased exponentially over the past two seasons. Even so, Johnson’s lack of lateral and closing speed could be an issue even against some of the less stellar small forwards.
▪ Josh McRoberts’ ineffectiveness as a fill-in starter for Luol Deng, who was sidelined with a sore quad and hopes to return Friday against Orlando.
That, plus an early rough stint for Gerald Green (before some late garbage time baskets) showed the limits of the Heat’s depth, at least until Tyler Johnson returns from shoulder surgery sometime in April. Either way, Miami can’t afford another injury to anyone in the rotation, not even for a week or so.
“I don’t know what that looks like,” Dwyane Wade said before the game, of missing Deng, who has been a solid performer at power forward since the All-Star break. “We haven’t done it. So it’s going to be us figuring it out when we get out on the floor, like we’ve done all season. No excuses will be made at all.”
But not enough quality plays were.
▪ The Heat’s reliance upon Goran Dragic to be at something close to his pace-pushing best.
The starting point had scored in double figures in the 20 prior games, but he never got going in this one, tentative in many situations and failing to finish in others. With Dragic struggling, the backcourt burden fell to Wade, who did make eight of his first 11 shots before forcing a couple as he tried to stem the Spurs’ surge.
▪ Finally, there wasn’t quite enough fight at the end, as Boban Marjanovic, the Spurs’ nimble 7-3 fan favorite, worked over Hassan Whiteside, spoiling Whiteside’s 15th double-double in his last 17 appearances.
Naturally, none of this renders all the Heat’s recent good work — the win against Cleveland, the resilience without Chris Bosh, the development of a three-man reserve group — irrelevant.
It just served as a reminder of the separation between the top two teams in the West — Golden State and San Antonio — and where Miami stands, as the Heat lost all four regular season contests against the Warriors and Spurs.
At least the two games against Golden State were competitive, with the Warriors winning by a combined margin of 14 points.
The Spurs won the two meetings by 42.
This, after all, is a special squad, even for the Spurs, even if they’re still sitting in second in the West.
Their lowestwinning percentage in a season since 1996-97 is .610, but they’ve never been in quite this stratosphere. The highest in franchise history was .768, and now they’re at .845, somehow still with a shot to shoot down the historically great Warriors for the top seed in the West, with two meetings left between the teams. That conference chase compelled Gregg Popovich to play all of his regulars Wednesday, regulars who were rested while the Heat was playing on the second night of a back-to-back.
Those aren’t excuses, just explanations, of what can happen against an exceptional team with something at stake. Sometimes, you just get drilled.