And surprise, it’s those supposedly stoic Spurs who are having more fun, while the South Beach bunch is a little grumpy and grouchy.
The Miami Heat may be on top of the basketball world, but there’s no joy unless they stay there.
“Playoffs ain’t fun, man. I’m sorry to bust anyone on the outside’s bubble,” Dwyane Wade said. “As a player in the playoffs, you have no joy until it’s over and you won. If you don’t win, you have no joy for a while.”
Down 1-0 after a record regular season that goes for naught without another title, the Heat can turn their moods around with a victory over San Antonio tonight in Game 2.
Back in the finals for a third straight year, the Heat have lost some of the ability to enjoy the ride. With exorbitant expectations, all that matters is the destination.
But San Antonio, absent from this stage for six years, is soaking up what could be its last shot for Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
After all, Duncan is pretty ancient — at least, according to those wise-cracking Spurs.
“Older than dirt,” coach Gregg Popovich called him this week.
Parker listed him at age 50 — Duncan is actually 37 — and the repeated ribbing appears almost out of character for a franchise that was often considered the definition of basketball blandness.
“My friends and everybody on the team, we get like the funny Instagram doctored-up photos or jokes where they’re making fun of how old some of the people on our team are who shall remain nameless,” reserve Matt Bonner said. “And we get a kick out of that.”
Despite the notion they’re old, the Spurs are actually overall the younger, less-experienced team in these finals. Miami has nine players in their 30s to the six on the Spurs, and their Big Three and Bonner are the only Spurs to have played in the NBA Finals.
That makes it easier for the Spurs to enjoy this trip more than when they were the team expected to be here every year.
“We definitely are having fun,” Parker said. “I think we appreciate every moment. We don’t take anything for granted, because it’s been a long time. It’s been six years. Felt like forever. After the Memphis series, there was a lot of emotion.”
Heat veteran Shane Battier wasn’t exactly sold on the notion of this Spurs transformation into a happy-go-lucky group.
“Don’t believe them, first of all,” he said. “They are extreme competitors and they have a level of self-deprecation I think that is part of them, but don’t buy it for one second. Those guys are killers. They’re cut-throat and they will stomp on you if need be, and we’re the same way.
“We appreciate the opportunity to play in the finals. Difficult to get here. Hardest thing you’ll do in this game is to try and win a championship, so we appreciate the opportunity and we want to make the most of it,” he said.
But he agreed with Wade that the playoffs aren’t fun.
“No, they’re not,” he said. “They’re stimulating. You feel alive. I wouldn’t say fun, but there’s no other place I’d rather be. It’s kind of a misery you enjoy. You’re cranky, especially after a loss. You don’t like the other team. You’re just a general grouch, but it’s the time you feel most alive as a basketball player and there’s nothing like it. Once you taste it, you don’t want to live without it.”
It’s a grind, though, for a team that will be playing its 100th game of the season Sunday. Wade has battled a painful right knee for a while, Chris Bosh is in a shooting slump, and the minutes are adding up for LeBron James, who has played deep into June the last three years and then competed in the Olympics last year.
“It’s a toll for myself to go through what I’ve been through the last 2½ years. But I’ve been blessed, I’ve been blessed to be able to be in three finals, I’ve been blessed to be a part of a great Olympic team and to play basketball, the game that I love,” James said.
“I’m not going to be able to do it forever. The opportunities that the game has given me for the last couple of years, I wouldn’t substitute that for rest,” he said.
James and the Heat at least got some with two days off following the Spurs’ 92-88 victory in Game 1. Both James and Wade had mentioned fatigue when talking about Miami’s poor fourth-quarter performance, just three nights after the end of a difficult, seven-game series against Indiana to decide the Eastern Conference championship.
The break gave the Heat more time to examine ways their own Big Three can be successful on offense, as well as get some more defensive pressure on the Spurs, who committed just four turnovers — none by Parker — in the opener.
“I think it’s been great for us, these last I don’t know how many hours it’s been since Game 1,” James said. “But we’ve used the time, I think, wisely in this case.”
They showed up in better spirits Saturday, James and Wade among several players taking part in a post-practice shooting contest, the kind of fun it seemed they would always have from the moment they debuted as Miami teammates three years ago in a welcoming party that rivaled a rock concert.
There will be time for partying if they rally to win the series after a one-game deficit, just as they did last year in the finals. The Heat haven’t lost consecutive games in five months, and they know this is no time to start.
“We’re not a team that really says too much this is a must-win game, but this is a must-win game for us,” Wade said. “We have to win this game at home.”