While the uniforms said it was a Finals re-match (well technically a two-time Finals re-match), it was a hard sell for the home crowd at the AT&T Center and certainly for those on press row. For one, LeBron James is back home in Cleveland and he's taken a bunch of Miami's bench players with him. For another, literally the five best remaining Heat players were given the game off, understandably by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, after the team played the night before in Kansas City against the Warriors. That meant no Dwyane Wade, no Chris Bosh, no Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts or Chris Andersen.
The Spurs, meanwhile, missed Kawhi Leonard, who will be out around ten more days with an eye infection, according to San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, and were also missing Tiago Splitter, still rehabbing a calf injury, and Patty Mills, who had off-season shoulder surgery. Tony Parker, the only one of the team's stars, including Popovich, who made the trip to Phoenix on Thursday, was given tonight off to rest.
The game itself was forgettable for many reasons, but thankfully the main one of those is that nobody on either side appeared to get injured. Unfortunately, the play was ragged and downright sloppy, as the Spurs continued to turn it over in spades, finishing with 28 in all. Add to that a foul-happy refereeing crew (in truth there were few calls to complain about as both tired squads were reaching and hacking instead of moving their feet) that called a combined 69 fouls which culminated in 83 free throw attempts and it was one loooong game.
Neither coach could've been all that thrilled that Marco Belinelli tied the game at 100-100 with a corner three with 28 seconds to go in regulation nor that Heat rookie guard Tyler Johnson missed two freebies on the next possession. Johnson did hit the go-ahead three from the wing in overtime though on his way to 17 points and rookie point Shabazz Napier made all four free throws late as part of his game-high 25. Napier added four assists to just one turnover and the two-time NCAA champ with UConn already looks far better than either of Miami's incumbents at his position, the hapless duo of Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole, further justifying James' endorsement of him on Twitter prior to the draft.
"We really liked him when we evaluated him," Spoelstra said of Napier, adding "He's in tremendous shape right now and he's been learning our system for the entire summer. You're seeing some of the residual benefits form that."
The Spurs, meanwhile, were led in scoring by Belinelli's 18, but got their best contribution from their own rookie in Kyle Anderson, who totaled 17 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists. Anderson hit 2-of-3 threes and it would've been 3-of-4 if not for one having his toe on the line in what was surely an homage to Vinny Del Negro.
Three-point shooting wasn't necessarily a strength of Anderson's at UCLA, but it's pretty much a requisite for anyone not surnamed "Duncan," with the Spurs.
"I've put a lot of time in, a lot of reps," said Anderson. "One of the things I wanted to get used to was shooting the ball out of the corner. That's one of the things that's always thrown me off playing the game, but it's something that I've been working on, and it showed today."
Another Spur whose jumper looks pretty clean is Cory Joseph, who also has struggled with that his facet of his game his first few seasons in the league. Joseph hit 6-of-12 shots, including 1-of-3 from downtown and added five boards and three assists.
"It is something we wanted him to do (over the summer)," said Popovich. "We want him to look for his jump shot a little bit more. He is more confident with the three, coming off of pick-and-rolls and shooting mid-range shots. He is doing a good job of trying to push that along a bit."
What Popovich surely did not plan on was for Joseph to play 36:11, but he had to because the only other active point on the roster, Bryce Cotton, inexplicably fouled out in 12:12 of floor time, getting whistled for his sixth with over five minutes to go in the third quarter. Cotton is a long shot to make the roster as it is and with Parker resting, this was a golden opportunity for him to show the coaches what he can do. He pretty much blew it, and who knows when the next chance will come?
Another rookie hopeful, JaMychal Green, fared far better, with 11 points and five boards in 13 minutes. The bouncy Green also had two emphatic blocks and sank all five of his free throws. He's still extremely doubtful to make the roster, but he didn't do anything to hurt himself tonight.
Speaking of people who hurt themselves frequently, it was pretty painful to watch Manu Ginobili, who continues to struggle. Ginobili readily admits to being well behind his teammates both in conditioning and "basketball-wise," due to a lack of basketball work in an off-season spent rehabbing a stress fracture in his left fibula, but the Argentine legend was so poor, making just 1-of-5 shots and tossing away six turnovers in 16 minutes, that you wonder how long it's going to take him to feel whole.
"I still feel un-secure with the ball and I need to play," Ginobili admitted. "The good thing is I'm healthy, I'm pain-free, for the first time in a long time. So, I'm happy with that but you know players are, once you get something down, you want the next step. And sometimes I get a little impatient because I feel like I'm so far behind and I want to do good, I want to feel useful, I want to help the team, especially right now when we're not playing well. Even though it's the preseason nobody likes playing bad. We turned the ball over a million times today. I understand we have time, we're still only four games into the preseason but at the same time in ten days we are playing (for real) and I want to be ready then and I know I'm going to be lagging a little behind but I want to be as close as possible as I can for that day."
The concerning thing, which Ginobili referenced later on, is that both he and his teammates are running out of time with the regular season just ten days away. Splitter is still a ways away and he'll be lacking rhythm after three weeks off the court. Mills will be out until 2015. Leonard is looking like a stretch to be ready in time and even if his eyes heal by then, he'll be rusty too. You throw a pressing Ginobili on top of all that and the ring ceremony may be the team's only highlight on Oct. 28 and perhaps a few days after that. There's no doubt that Parker and Duncan will have to carry the team early.
The good news, again, is that nobody got hurt and even though the Spurs lost at home to Miami, it worked out well enough in the end the last time they did that.