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 overall, getting back on the winning track at New Orleans on 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 else 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 also been on the losing end 16 times there.
"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 before the game.
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.
"I just want you to know the Heat are going to be just fine," said President Barack Obama, a noted Bulls fan during a stop in Miami on Friday. "They're going to be OK. They are playing basketball the right way."
The Heat streak is gone, but standings-wise, it's still a big deal.
"Very good team, obviously the defending champs," Duncan said. "I think they won 62 in a row or something like that. It'll be a great game. I know our crowd will be excited and we'll be excited to continue our homestand."
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 really left on the Heat to-do list before the opening round of the playoffs is finish atop the NBA's regular-season standings.
"The mindset will be, first and foremost, playing our game and making sure that we est@blish our identity," Spoelstra said. "That's the whole thing with us. When we do that and play the way we're capable, results take care of themselves.
"We don't want to get caught up in too much of the results. We have a big goal in mind. That's the No. 1 goal and that's the only goal we've talked about."
In another installment of the Heat Index's 3-on-3 series, our writers give their takes on the storylines before the Heat face the Spurs on Sunday (7 p.m. ET).
1. Fact or Fiction: LeBron James is unguardable.
Tom Haberstroh: Fact, if we're talking one-on-one. But you could say the same for a few guys in the league. When Erik Spoelstra surrounds him with shooters, LeBron shifts into auto-buckets mode. Double up on LeBron and he'll hit the open man. Throw single coverage on him? he'll muscle his way to the rack. Pick your poison.
Michael Wallace: Fact. LeBron simply has no weaknesses at this point. Now that he's knocking down 3-pointers consistently, he's found a comfort zone with every aspect of his game. The only chance to slow him down is to put him on the line and hope he splits free throws.
Brian Windhorst: Fiction. In transition, he's one of the best, if not the best, playmaker of all-time. One-on-one it is an extreme challenge that only a few players in the league are equipped to truly challenge James in a such a capacity. But no player is unguardable against a team defense. The dilemma for opponents is the way the Heat are built -- there are penalties for focusing the entire team defense on James. Unguardable? No. The hardest player to guard in the game, perhaps.
2. Fact or Fiction: The Heat will finish with the best record in the NBA.
Haberstroh: Fact. If they dropped the Hornets game, then I'd go with push here. I still think that the Heat will fall into a mini post-streak slump because rest will become a top priority, but the Spurs aren't healthy enough (Manu Ginobili) to make them sweat. That could change if San Antonio wins without Manu, though.
Wallace: Fact. The Heat have the best record right now, with 10 games left and an easier slate than the Spurs and Thunder face down the stretch. Although Erik Spoelstra's maintenance program is secretly in effect, it would still mean something for Miami to finish with the best record and set the franchise mark for most wins in a season.
Windhorst: Fact. It's hard to predict what the coaches will do as far as rest with star players. But the Spurs have five tough road games left against possible West playoff teams. This is the Heat's final game against the West and they have three road games left, all against weak East teams. The schedule certainly favors the Heat.
3. Fact or Fiction: Heat-Spurs is a preview of the 2013 NBA Finals.
Haberstroh: Fiction. Still think it's going to be OKC-Heat for all the marbles again. The Spurs simply can't afford a gimpy Ginobili down the stretch. It's close, but I'm going with the Thunder, who are one of the most dominant teams in recent history.
Wallace: Fact. I've been saying this since Day 1. Well, maybe rather Day 2, considering I initially got caught up in the Lakers preseason hype and hoped for that dream showdown with the Heat. But the Spurs are the team most capable of disrupting the Heat's quest to repeat -- if they can get through the West.
Windhorst: Fact, I hope. I picked the Thunder to win the West at the beginning of the season and there's a good chance that is going to happen. I guess I'm still picking the Thunder, though really all anyone is doing in such a series is making an educated guess that could go either way. I think Spurs-Heat would be a great Finals matching up some of the best players in this era, champions vs. champions. Gregg Popovich outdueled James six years ago when LeBron was younger and not as polished dealing with a game plan aimed at his weaknesses. I'd like to see him try it again.