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

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