If Miami's going to get its first road win this weekend, it's going to have to earn it. A brief but grueling two-day road trip begins tonight in San Antonio with an 8 p.m. ESPN game against the Spurs.
All NBA observers understand that there are two Spurs teams - the winter one, and the spring one. The winter version is a subdued group slogging through a league-mandated prerequisite to a class they're easily qualified for. They'll win enough to get to the postseason, but lose enough to make everyone write them off. That happens every year, but it's happening in earnest in 08-09.
The Spurs started 0-3 and needed a heroic Tony Parker effort to knock off the lowly Timberwolves and notch a win. This, of course, provokes the annual debate over whether the stalwart contender is still viable, if this is just its typical early-season ambivalence or the early signs of a fade that will eventually, inevitably happen. I can comfortably guarantee you that it's the first. San Antonio is going nowhere, and the Spurs will be heard from in this postseason. The team is squarely in the Utah Jazz phase of its protracted run of contention: analysts will talk about this team's window closing for the next five years, and eventually time and repitition will prove them right. But they're not right yet.
So what does that have to do with the Heat? Well, our fledgling team is walking into a lion's den tonight. San Antonio makes its living floating above the cacophony, aloof to the roller-coaster of public opinion and the mindless screams of its inhabitants. But it does not have a completely tin ear. The Spurs will occasionally prod the conversation with a reminder of its power, and tonight looms as an opportunity to do just that. A national TV tilt against an unproven team without a road win to its name, a squad made all the more vulnerable by the rookies dangled at the Spurs' two positional pillars of power. We'll discuss those below. I'm just saying, this game is going to be a bastard.
Matchup of the night: Tony Parker vs. Mario Chalmers.
Chalmers passed the steady-vet test by outplaying Philadelphia's Andre Miller, but the ante gets upped tonight. The Heat struggles to keep quick guards out of the lane, and none is better at doing exactly that than Parker. Chalmers will be the point man on the project, but the effort will truly be a team effort, requiring lots of double teams, traps and other forms of need-based assistance for the overmatched rookie. The hope is that Chalmers doesn't have to hand the whole thing over to Dwyane Wade, placing an added burden on the Heat's offensive centerpiece. Also too, Chalmers could knock down a j whenever he's ready.
Opposing player I'm scared of: Tim Duncan.
I was going to say Roger Mason Jr., but he kind of stole the element of surprise with a 26-point outing Wednesday. (You'll recall that Mason is the guy Pat Riley lamented letting escape his clutches this summer.) So let's roll with Duncan, who the Heat will likely guard with Udonis Haslem to spare rookie Michael Beasley a humbling thrashing. I almost want Beasley to guard Duncan tonight, just to feel what it's like to get owned by a living legend. That might happen on the opposite end, where Duncan may cross-check Beasley while Fabricio Oberto or Matt Bonner throws a hand in Haslem's face. Either way, the Heat's smallish frontcourt is a buffet line even for the still-hibernating early-season version of Duncan.