"Don't get it twisted. We still know who we are."
That was the message the Heat sent the league Sunday. Regular season games are contests for fans and media to try and build meaning into, but the players and coaches don't subscribe to it. The Miami Heat will feel better than they would have if they had lost after their 113-101 blowout win over San Antonio and the Spurs will feel worse, but there is no "meaning" to be attached to this Finals rematch.
Not with the season still so young and the Spurs without Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, and Tiago Splitter. For San Antonio, this was just a loss. A loss to a good team on the road. Their 1-11 mark against the league's elite is developing into a narrative, but it's going to lack any sort of oomph until the playoffs come. They have to actually lose in a must-win situation for anyone to reasonably doubt San Antonio. That's how strong the track record is. They're only vulnerable to criticism after it's too late.
But for Miami, this was an opportunity to show against a team that executes so well, regardless of the personnel that they have, that it still has an extra gear. Miami's defense, which had been so lackluster the last month, welcomed Dwyane Wade back in the rotation. Whether it was pride against the team that nearly eliminated them in the Finals, or just a matter of wanting to get everyone off their back, Miami showed up and used its tools.
Attacking passing lanes, victimizing new Spurs like Marco Belinelli. The aggressive pick and roll trap, the inside rotations leading to charges. The Heat defense started back up Sunday like the vintage car you keep in the garage and only take out when you want to get somewhere in a hurry. That led to transition opportunities, which let the Heat set up. That's how you win basketball games in general, but it's especially important vs. the Spurs, who victimize teams that don't get reset.
The third-quarter run that broke the game open and secured the victory for Miami led to a 92.8 defensive efficiency rating, a terrific mark, especially comapred with the 109.8 mark the Heat allowed overall. Their offense was in gear, and that clearly made a difference. It was a performance from LeBron James that shows the difference from the MVP type season that Kevin Durant is having right now and the Finals MVP performance James is still capable of giving. Closing off lanes, finishing through contact, and making passes like this.
There's no reason for the Spurs to feel frustrated beyond the normal aggravations of the loss, though memories of the championship celebration rope being put up in Game 6 must have entered a few of their minds. There's a long way to go and the Spurs need to get healthy before we can judge them.
But Sunday was a showing that the Heat can still become the adroit, malevolent force that won the past two titles when they decide to rev up all the horses. The NBA season is in the depth of its grind right now. Miami didn't need to send a reminder to everyone they still have the fiercest gear in the league (outside of maybe Indiana), but it also doesn't hurt to keep that gear available when they need it.
That it came against their last Finals opponent is just icing on the cake. And you walk away saying "Oh, yeah, that's the Heat." Patient, deliberate, and waiting for the right time to strike.