LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers sat out the Miami Heat's game as visitors in San Antonio. And whether you'd call it poetic justice (after the way the Spurs chose not to travel to Florida with their whole roster back in late November) or fate gone awry, the beasts of the east pulled out an 88-86 win with an improbable Chris Bosh three-pointer with just over a second left in the contest. There was certainly a lot of weirdness going on at the AT&T center on this Easter evening.
Part of that weird: I attended the game as a member of the press for the first time tonight. I didn't know what to expect. I didn't even know where to park. Aaron Preine and Matthew Tynan were nice enough to show me around. I've sat court-side before, but this was definitely its own unique experience.
Walking around was kind of a whirlwind. Actually, it was all kind of a whirlwind. Aaron met me at the entrance and guided me to the press area. We were chit-chatting about how Lebron and Dwayne were getting the night off, and Pop walked by. That was weird. I thought to myself, "Oh look, there's Pop. Two feet away from me. Act like you've been here before. Hold it together."
That was basically my approach to the night. I just tried to blend in with the crowd. Popovich conducted his pre-game interview at 4:45pm, so I tagged along with Matthew. I was very curious as to how this whole Pop interview would be conducted. Would it be in an office? Would he be sitting? Would there be cameras? No, no and no.
The press congregated in a hallway; there was about 20 of us. Suddenly, Pop appeared and stared at everyone -- impatiently. Apparently, that's Popovich's way of saying, "Ask away." Someone lobbed him a query about Manu's recovery timeline. Popovich seemed distraught as he replied that it would be "weeks, not days."
Next, a reporter asked Pop how he felt about Miami choosing to rest Wade and James. Pop responded, "Wait, what?" "You know, Miami is sitting Wade and James." To fully convey his shock, Pop took three steps back before throwing his arms up and waving them around. "They're WHAT?!? What kind of s**t is that? Who would think of something like that?" And that was my first experience with Popovich. I'd say it was a memorable one.
Before the game began, I attempted to find my seat, as people do. That's when I was made aware that my press pass did not guarantee me a seat. Each media seat had a name-tag and none said, "Fred Silva." Normally, this would be moot because there would be plenty of seats generically labeled "media" that would be up for grabs. However, since this contest was against the media hawking Heat, all the seats were taken. I sat in a seat reserved for "Sports Exchange" and gambled that he wouldn't show up. Well, he did. Aaron walked with me along press row and we found a last empty seat. It was reserved for Richard Oliver. Aaron told me to sit there because he saw Richard sitting somewhere else. So, for the night, I was Richard Oliver.
The Heat, without three of their best four players, began the game hitting mid-range shots. That was the first indication that this game was going to be competitive. Bosh scored a quick ten points, six of which came from a couple of three-point shots. Coming into this game, Chris Bosh had made 16 3-pointers all season. So, because it was going to be a strange night, he of course began the game by making two in the first four minutes.
For the Spurs, Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard kept the score close. Tim had 8 points in the first quarter and Kawhi had his own 5-0 run that helped to close the gap. The Spurs finished the period up two points, 24 to 22. Even though the Spurs led, Miami made it clear that they were going to compete, and their game-plan had promising, early success. Their defense was clearly bothering the Spurs and the Heat were hitting their shots.
Miami played contact basketball; very physical defense. They didn't do anything dirty, they just always were in the Spurs players' space. Miami played a lot of small-ball lineups which allowed them to apply ball pressure at every position. Against other teams, when Tim catches the ball at the top of the key, he has a lot of room to operate. Tonight, the Heat never allowed Tim to get comfortable. In fact, they didn't allow any of the Spurs to feel comfortable.
The game was close throughout. Neither team could pull away, which is surprising given Miami played without Lebron and Dwayne. Another thing the Heat did well was aggressively defend Tony whenever he attempted a pick and roll. Again, utilizing a small lineup, they were able to execute great traps that forced Tony to give up the ball before making the defense shift.
Without the defense shifting, the ball did not move well for the Spurs. Another reason that the Miami defense was so successful was due to the Spurs' lacking their Argentine creator. Miami did a great job of taking Tony out of the game, and that left the Spurs without an offensive catalyst.
I mentioned earlier that Popovich was distraught over Manu's injury in the pregame press conference. "Weeks, not days." He said that it really hurts the Spurs because they only have two creators and without Manu, they're at a disadvantage. Well, he was right about the franchise's pain. Without Manu, the Spurs do not have anyone that can salvage a broken play. Hopefully Manu's hammy heals quickly this time.
Entering the final minutes of the game, the score was tight. Neither team led by more than three for most of the fourth quarter. Back and forth they went. The Spurs' defense did its job; the Spurs' offense was the problem. Miami's defense simply never allowed the Spurs to get in a groove. But with 1:20 remaining, the Spurs found themselves up by three points after a clutch Tim Duncan fade-away jumper.
And this is where it all went wrong. Both teams missed shots and with the Spurs still up three with 32 seconds remaining, Noris Cole forced a fast break. It was a 1 on 2 break with Kawhi and Danny defending. Noris had nowhere to go, twisted and fell to the ground. A foul was called. I think it's safe to say that this call was incorrect. Then the ball proceeded to lie as Cole made both free-throws and Miami had pulled to within a single point.
Look, the Spurs deserved to lose. They played uninspired ball for much of the game and didn't really turn it on until the last five minutes of the game. However, why can't the home team get a call? How does this work? That foul completely changed the game. Up three with the ball and 32 seconds remaining or up 1? That's a huge difference.
Well, Tim missed his next shot long and Chris Bosh hit another 3-pointer for the win. Bosh, shooting 26% for the year from beyond the arc, hit nothing but net. While it's a huge win for Miami, I think this could be an important loss for the Spurs. The coaching staff needs to take a look at this film and figure out how to take advantage of Miami's aggressive defense. The Spurs had the height advantage throughout the game, but didn't take advantage. Errant passes and missed opportunities is what happened when the Spurs attempted to punish the smaller Miami defenders.
After the game, I followed Matthew Tynan around, to avoid getting lost. The AT&T Center's underbelly seemed very maze-like. It all looks the same and the hallways keep shifting so it was tough to keep my bearings. I blindly followed Matthew into a room with a bunch of other press folk. Soon, Popovich emerged for his postgame press conference. It was a short one, I assume because no one wanted to get Popped.
As classy as ever, Popovich gave all the credit to Miami and never mentioned the officiating. He was upset, but not crazy, as he had seemed moments earlier during the Noris Cole foul call. After the brief Pop press conference, everyone funneled into the locker room. As you can imagine, none of the players were very talkative. Before the game, Andrea Duke had tweeted me that her favorite part of the press pass was the locker room. Though, she added, it's a little awkward for her.
I didn't think that part through at the time, but fast-forward to the locker room, post game. It's a well appointed, yet humid room with dudes not being too shy about changing after their showers. That's crazy, isn't it? In this era of political correctness, professional male players just stripping down in front of female media members. I definitely felt awkward for them.
The postgame locker room conversations were fairly uneventful. There was a lot of praise for Kawhi, who played a great game. He made 8 of his 13 shots for an efficient 17 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Tim also played well, scoring 17 points and snaring 10 boards. Unfortunately, the Heat defense forced Tony Parker into a 4 of 14 shooting night and the Spurs were unable to overcome it.
So, that's my first press pass recap. It was fun, intimidating and exhilarating, all at the same time.