Spurs’ trip to Miami a Heat check

By Jeff McDonald

MIAMI — The Spurs take the floor this afternoon at American Airlines Arena, at long last prepared to square off with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat.

Only about four months too late.

Last June, the Spurs appeared all but ticketed for a trip to South Beach before Oklahoma City ambushed them in the final four games of the Western Conference finals.

Today’s preseason game in Miami isn’t filled with as much meaning as an NBA Finals matchup would have been. For a Spurs’ team that still considers itself very much a title contender, that doesn’t mean it is meaningless.

“It’s a championship team, a championship program,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “It’s a great way to see a lot of players play against such a good basketball team. You play a team like that, you get some questions answered.”

Spurs’ players freely admit today’s game won’t serve as a measuring stick in the manner a regular-season game against the defending league champions might.

By the time the benches clear in the second half, the festivities are likely to devolve into the Wesley Witherspoon or Garrett Temple show.

But at the outset, assuming both teams play their regulars, the game should provide a much better gauge than, say, a rematch with Montepaschi Siena.

“It’s better to play the best team than the worst,” guard Manu Ginobili said. “At least you get to play a few minutes against Wade, LeBron and guys like that, that you’ve really got to guard.”

As the preseason hits the home stretch, Popovich says he plans to ramp up the starters’ minutes leading up to the Oct. 31 regular-season opener at New Orleans.

That should be welcome news to any fan paying full price to attend this afternoon’s exhibition.

“It’s only a preseason game and you’re just getting ready,” center Boris Diaw said. “But they are the defending champions, so we’re going to be able to measure ourselves a little bit.”

If nothing else, the opening quarters of today’s game should provide a stress test for the Spurs’ defense-in-progress.

The Heat boast a trio of All-Stars — led by James, a three-time league MVP — who combined to average better than 67 points per game last season. But they’ve added to the mix a pair of dangerous long-range gunners in Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis.

The 36-year-old Allen, who won a championship ring of his own with Boston in 2008, is only the most prolific 3-point shooter in NBA history with 2,718 made.

“Having players like LeBron and Wade plus Bosh, you need to put people in the paint and make everything crowded,” Ginobili said. “The addition of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis adds two wonderful shooters. It makes them tougher.”

Improving the Spurs from the middling defensive unit they were a season ago — and have been since the 2007 championship season — was the item atop Popovich’s agenda entering training camp.

Through four preseason games, the Spurs are allowing opponents to shoot 33.8 percent and are giving up 95 points per game.

In their only loss of the preseason, the Spurs at least held Denver — the only team to average more points than them in the regular season last year — to less than triple digits.

It’s so far, so good. But then again, the Spurs haven’t faced the defending champs yet.

The Spurs believe they will know more about themselves after the smoke clears today. How much more remains to be seen.

“It’s not going to be a measuring stick to see who wins, because the preseason is not about winning,” Ginobili said. “It’s about getting better, and playing against the best players makes you better.”

Even in the preseason.

Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

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