LeBron-less Heat beat Spurs to the finish

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By Jeff McDonald

MIAMI — The Spurs came to South Florida this weekend intent on receiving the kind of test facing the defending NBA champions could surely provide.

Informed before Saturday’s preseason game at AmericanAirlines Arena that league MVP LeBron James — the player most responsible for the Miami Heat laying claim to that title — was sitting out, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich feigned disappointment.

“Is he?” Popovich said. “Kawhi was looking forward to holding him scoreless.”

As a consolation, Kawhi Leonard — the Spurs’ 21-year-old small forward still learning on the job — got to spend most of Miami’s 104-101 victory battling with Dwyane Wade, when he wasn’t chasing Ray Allen around screens.

And the Spurs got their hoped-for test anyway, going toe-to-toe with a Miami team that, even sans James, at times certainly looked title worthy.

That the Spurs’ regulars held their own, recovering from 11-point deficit in the first half to take a 10-point lead before both teams emptied the benches, was a good enough sign.

“Just playing games, period, is good,” said Tim Duncan, who scored 11 of his 15 points in the third quarter to spark the Spurs’ turnaround. “It doesn’t matter who it’s against.

“Just getting out of practice all the time and trying to get some rhythm in different situations you can’t set up in practice. Things happen, you go to the sidelines, and you learn from it.”

For the second time this preseason, a game went down to the wire, requiring a last-ditch play drawn up in a timeout huddle.

That Popovich chose to take the grease pen himself — and not delegate the duty to Tony Parker or anyone else — is perhaps an indication that things are getting serious.

Whatever Popovich scribbled didn’t exactly come to fruition on the floor.

Behind by three points with 1.8 seconds to go, the Spurs (3-2) could only muster an off-balance, heavily guarded 3-point try from Cory Joseph.

“We all learn something from those situations, whether it’s young guys or whatever,” Duncan said. “Just to talk through it, older guys can point some things out. You learn some things that way.”

This being the preseason, what happened at the end of the game was less consequential than what happened earlier, when both teams had their regulars on the floor.

The Spurs survived an early bout of Wade, who is coming off knee surgery, looking decidedly Wade-like.

Wade scored all 13 of his points in the first half and had most of them before Miami’s Mike Miller began staging his own personal 3-point shooting contest.

Miller finished with 12 points, hitting his first four attempts from long-range. He made three of them during a two-minute stretch of the second quarter that helped the Heat (3-2) push the lead to 55-44.

“If you leave him open, he is going to hit it,” said Miami’s Rashard Lewis, who added 15 points of his own. “He’s going to help this team out by continually draining threes.”

Behind a big third quarter from Duncan, 17 points from Danny Green and nine points in seven minutes from Miami ex-pat Eddy Curry, the Spurs not only clawed back in the game. They climbed ahead by double digits.

Miami did not get the lead back until Terrel Harris’ two free throws with 1:37 to play.

Given one last chance to force overtime, the Spurs, who visit Orlando today, could not come through.

On this day, however, it was about the journey and not the destination.

“Every game is a good test,” Popovich said. “You play a lot of guys, see what they can do, look at combinations, get guys in shape, get some rhythm. There’s something to take away from every game.”

Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

Things we’ve learned (or think we have) about Spurs

With four out of seven exhibition games in the books, the Spurs are a little more than halfway finished with their preseason. Though it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions from a set of games featuring more minutes from Cory Joseph, Nando De Colo and Eddy Curry than Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan, Express-News beat writer Jeff McDonald gives it a stab:

De Colo is part Argentine

He’s French, and he plays a little point guard, but that’s about the only similarity rookie Nando De Colo bears to Tony Parker. Where Parker emerged from the womb a scoring guard, De Colo at times seems allergic to shooting. Oh, but can he pass. De Colo’s slick assists — he’s averaging a team-best 4.8 per game — remind many Spurs of a young Manu Ginobili. With the Spurs jam-packed at both guard positions, De Colo is likely to begin the season at the end of the bench. If he ever does crack the rotation, however, get your popcorn ready.

Eddy Curry is hungry

No, not that kind of hungry. Hungry for a job. At 7-foot, 295 pounds, Curry arrived at training camp as in shape as he can be. The former fourth overall NBA draft pick has been a model camper, clearly motivated to resuscitate his career after appearing in only 24 games the past three seasons. Curry can still score, having notched double-digit outings in two of the Spurs’ four preseason games, but won’t help much in the rebounding or defensive departments. If he doesn’t earn the Spurs’ 15th roster spot, he’s bound to help some team this season.

There’s talent at the bottom

The Spurs don’t always carry a full 15-man roster into the regular season. But with NBA-experienced big men Curry, Josh Powell and Derrick Brown all providing positive moments, this is a year the Spurs might wish they could keep 17. Curry has size and offensive skill, Powell is averaging seven points on 9-of-10 shooting, and Brown has showcased his athleticism and enough versatility to defend small and power forwards. At this rate, cut day could come down to a high-stakes game of “eeny, meeny, miney, moe.”

Neal gets the point

In the race to become Parker’s primary backup, the incumbent holds a narrow lead. Gary Neal has been the first point guard off the bench in each preseason game, averaging a team-best 13 points while also contributing 2.5 assists and keeping his turnovers in check. More important, Neal — a shooting guard by trade — has done a credible job of running the second unit. Patty Mills, Joseph and De Colo can be expected to keep pushing Neal. If the season began today, however, he’s the backup point.

Size matters (maybe)

It hasn’t happened often. If you blinked, you probably missed it. But twice in the past two games, coach Gregg Popovich has deployed a lineup using 6-11 Tiago Splitter alongside 6-11 Tim Duncan. It is a Twin Towers look the Spurs largely avoided the past two seasons but one that could come in handy against, say, the Dwight Howard-Pau Gasol Lakers in the regular season. Stay tuned.


Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

Race for Spurs roster spot down to Curry, Brown

By Jeff McDonald

MIAMI — Ten days before the start of the regular season, there technically remain four candidates to claim the Spurs’ 15th and final roster spot.

Before Saturday’s 104-101 loss at Miami, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich winnowed the field further.

“We’re looking at basically two guys, Eddy Curry and Derrick Brown,” Popovich said.

Curry, a 29-year-old center whose career has become synonymous with squandered promise, has throughout the preseason displayed a consistent ability to put the ball in the basket.

In his Saturday return to Miami, where he was a little-used member of last season’s NBA championship squad, Curry contributed nine points in less than eight minutes.

“Eddy lost 20 pounds to come to camp, and he’s played through being tired, which has always been a bugaboo for him in the past,” Popovich said. “He’s worked very hard, and he’s done a lot of good things.”

Brown, a 25-year-old former Charlotte Bobcat who can guard both small and power forwards, did not play Saturday. Still, Popovich has been impressed with Brown’s versatility and defensive chops.

“He’s a talented kid,” Popovich said. “Sometimes it takes people a little longer for the light to go on. You get them into another program and things work for them.”

The Spurs have until Oct. 29 to cut their roster from 18 players to no more than 15.

In addition to Curry and Brown, two other players on camp contracts — forwards Josh Powell and Wesley Witherspoon — remain on the roster for now.

Powell logged 16 minutes against the Heat, producing eight points and six rebounds, but made only 3-of-8 field goals. Witherspoon did not travel with the team to Florida, although he has not yet been formally waived.

Prize waits: In addition to the promise of a paycheck, Curry has another reason to want to make the Spurs.

If Curry is on the team Nov. 29, when the Spurs return to Miami in the regular season, that’s the date he’s most likely to receive his championship ring from the Heat.

“It’s cool,” Curry said. “I already got sized and everything. My wife, too.”

Having appeared in just 14 games for Miami last season, and none in the playoffs, Curry admits he had considerably less to do with the Heat’s title than, say, LeBron James did.

“I don’t want to sound ungrateful,” Curry said. “My second ring will be better. I’ll say it like that.”

Got Spo’s vote: One person rooting for Curry to hook on with the Spurs is Miami coach Erik Spoelstra.

“He has really committed himself, to put himself in a position not only to be back in this league, but really be an impact player,” Spoelstra said.