By the time the Miami Heat get on their plane to come home late Sunday night, they could have a stranglehold on the race to finish with the NBA's best record.
All they have to do is win at San Antonio. That, of course, is no easy task.
The Heat (57-15) take a two-game lead in the NBA standings over the Spurs (55-17) into their matchup on Sunday. A win would essentially provide Miami a four-game cushion with nine remaining, given that the Heat also would control any potential head-to-head tiebreaker with San Antonio.
If the Heat lose, the race for home-court advantage throughout the entirety of the playoffs could turn into a frantic, down-to-the-wire deal.
"It's always good to play the best, to play against the best," LeBron James said. "It'll be an opportunity for us. We just want to get better, man. The game Sunday doesn't define our season or how we go from there. We just want to continue to move forward and get better throughout the rest of the season."
Miami has won 28 of its last 29 games, getting back on the winning track at New Orleans Friday, two days after Chicago snapped a 27-game Heat winning streak. But San Antonio has won 28 of its last 30 games at home, and facing the Spurs on the road is traditionally a painful expedition for many members of the Heat -- as it tends to be for everyone in the NBA.
Dwyane Wade is 1-4 at San Antonio, sitting out three other Heat losses there during his career. Chris Bosh is 1-7. James is 3-7. Shane Battier -- a longtime player in the Western Conference -- has enjoyed eight wins from the visitors' side when facing the Spurs, and been on the losing end 16 times.
"It's obviously a very, very, very good team," Wade said. "Very tough place to play, so I think our mentality and how we approach the game is going to be important. You just try to go out there and compete, as we do every night, try to get a great road win. It's not going to be easy but that's kind of what we enjoy."
The only other meeting between the clubs this season was Nov. 29 in Miami, a strange game in that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich -- citing a desire to rest his best players at the end of a long road trip -- sent Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Danny Green home.
With guys like Patty Mills, Nando De Colo and Matt Bonner filling out the starting lineup -- they've combined to make four other starts this season -- the Spurs almost beat the Heat anyway, leading by five with 2:13 left before getting outscored 12-2 in a wild Miami finish that gave the Heat a 105-100 win.
Ginobili played just under three minutes in Friday night's win over the Los Angeles Clippers because of a strained right hamstring, and Popovich glumly said afterward he didn't expect him to be ready to face the Heat.
And on Saturday the Spurs made it official: Ginobili is out for the game, with no return date set.
The Spurs have won six of their last seven games. Of those six wins, only one came by double figures, an 11-point victory over Golden State. The average margin of the other five wins in that span, over Dallas, Cleveland, Utah, Denver and Clippers was 3.4 points, and the only loss was a one-pointer at Houston.
"It's great challenges, good preparation for us for the playoffs," Parker said. "Denver is a great team, Clippers a great team and now we've got Miami. They're the best in the league. They went on the unbelievable run and it's going to be another great game."
This game could have been one of the most-watched among regular-season games in years if Miami had not lost in Chicago on Wednesday. Had the Heat won there and won in New Orleans, as they did on Friday, they would have been going for their 30th straight win on this trip to San Antonio in what will be touted either way as a potential NBA Finals preview.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has said everyone on his roster should be considered day-to-day for the remainder of the regular season. This is when teams like to ensure that players get some rest wherever they can.
And the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference is already clinched, meaning all that's left on the Heat to-do list before the opening round of the playoffs is finish atop the NBA's regular-season standings.
-- The Associated Press