A funny thing happened on the way to the inevitable whitewashing that we were sure would follow San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich's decision to send four starters back to Texas early rather than face the Miami Heat at full strength on Thursday night. Instead of a stem-to-stern demolition born out of the talent imbalance between a Heat team with its three marquee names (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh) ready to go and a Spurs side without its three signature stars (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, plus rising young swingman Danny Green), the fans in the stands at the AmericanAirlines Arena and watching at home on TNT saw an exciting, competitive, nip-and-tuck contest that went down to the wire.
If San Antonio was punting on the nationally televised matchup — as many seem to think they were, including NBA Commissioner David Stern, who before the game called Popovich's roster manipulation "unacceptable" and promised "substantial sanctions" for the Spurs — it seemed no one told the Spurs, who rode big nights from the likes of guard Gary Neal (20 points and seven assists, albeit on 7-for-20 shooting and with six turnovers, off the bench), center Tiago Splitter (18 points, nine rebounds, two assists) and rookie Nando De Colo (15 points, six rebounds, five assists and five turnovers in the most significant action of his young career) to a seven-point lead with five minutes remaining. Miami, however, clawed back late behind the rim-attacking of James and Wade, and with 40 seconds remaining, trailed by a lone point, 98-97.
Mr. Allen, please pick up the red courtesy phone:
The thing is, San Antonio very nearly got away with this one. After Miami forced a less-than-ideal defensive matchup by having Bosh screen for James at the right elbow, leading the Spurs to switch the pick and put Splitter (who's not plodding, but also isn't an exceptional on-ball defender in space) on the reigning MVP while Boris Diaw trailed Bosh, James drove straight into the teeth of the Spurs' defense and got tied up by De Colo, who'd crashed down into the paint to double the ball on the drive. With 28 seconds left, the ball popped up into the air, hit the deck, popped back up into the air, missed all sorts of extended arms and landed, naturally, back in James' hands. (It must feel warm when the gods smile upon you.)
The scramble for the ball brought all five Spurs to the paint; when James came away with the ball, he had only five seconds left on the shot clock, but he also had two wide-open shooters directly in his line of sight from which to choose. He chose the one who's hit the most 3-pointers in NBA history and who entered Thursday having made 52.9 percent of his long balls. With all due respect to the also-open Mario Chalmers, James chose wisely; Ray Allen, as he's done time and again throughout his career and in his brief tenure in Miami, drained the triple over a too-late-in-contesting Neal, giving the Heat a 100-98 lead.
After the game, Allen told Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press that in late-game scrambles like Thursday night's, his most important job is just to be visible:
"Every time a guy turns his head I have to find the open spot so LeBron can see me," Allen said. "Anything can happen out there. We put ourselves in such a tough situation, but we kept plugging away."
San Antonio had three chances to tie or take the lead in the final 22.6 seconds, with Neal missing a pair of 3-pointers and backcourt mate Patty Mills also misfiring from long range, and final-minute free throws from James and Allen provided the final margin in a thrilling 105-100 victory. With the win, Miami improves its Eastern Conference-leading record to 11-3; the loss drops San Antonio to 13-4.
If the clip above isn't rocking for you, feel free to check out the game-winner elsewhere, thanks to our friends at the National Basketball Association.