SAN ANTONIO -- When the San Antonio Spurs came to Miami last month and delivered a beating on the Heat heading into the All-Star break, Dwyane Wade acknowledged afterward that his team wasn't anywhere near ready to match up with the NBA's elite teams.
But after winning 12 of 17 since that setback, the hope was that Wednesday's game would be a measuring stick of sorts to show how much legitimate progress the Heat have made amid their best stretch of the season.
That hope didn't last long.
Actually, it was decimated long before Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard shredded Miami's defense for 32 points in 24 minutes before leaving the game in the third quarter with a bruised quadriceps. By then, San Antonio was already ahead by 20 and well on the way to extending its home-court winning streak to 45 games, including a 36-0 mark this season in which 24 games were decided by double digits.
The Heat's task was daunting enough against those odds in what turned out to be a 112-88 setback that was their second-worst defeat of the season. The margin for error was slim to begin with, but then came the announcement 90 minutes before tipoff that Miami would be without its most experienced perimeter defender, Luol Deng, who was sidelined with a bruised left thigh.
"We've taken some big steps, but I don't know what that's going to mean [against San Antonio]," Wade said before the game. "But I feel like we're a different team than we were [last month]."
That rendered the Heat (41-30) difficult to assess. The Spurs and Golden State Warriors have essentially lapped the league in talent, depth and performance this season. Even at their best, the Heat don't consider themselves on that tier with those two Western Conference juggernauts. What Miami seeks, even in defeat against the elite, is to make modest progress as it prepares over the remaining 11 regular-season games for the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The combination of Deng being unavailable to help defend Leonard, and the challenge of facing the team with the second-longest home win streak in NBA history, was too much to overcome after a competitive start in the first half. When the Spurs outscored the Heat 32-16 in the third quarter, it was basically time to shift the focus to Friday's home game against Orlando and try to close out the week with a 2-1 record.
"What that is, is a very good, proven basketball team," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of the Spurs, who ended Miami's streak of 11 consecutive games scoring at least 100 points. "We're trying to get to another level, and we're not quite there yet. We're going to keep on plugging away and keep on working at it. We've still got three weeks to get better, improve and get to our best version by the playoffs."
Still locked in a tight battle with Atlanta, Boston and Charlotte for the third overall seed in the East, the Heat will have a chance to regroup with their next four games against the Magic, Nets, Lakers and Kings -- opponents who on Wednesday owned a combined 90-192 record.
The setback in San Antonio did little to rattle the Heat's confidence in what they've established in March, which is on pace for the highest-scoring month in franchise history. They know they won't have to deal with the Spurs or the Warriors again -- unless it's in the NBA Finals.
"This one felt like 10 losses, but it's only one," Spoelstra said. "Our guys understand what we're playing for and the significance of those games. But we've got to go out there and prove it."
Heat rookie Justise Winslow struggled to determine whether the Spurs game was fair assessment of the team's standing and level of preparation for high-level competition.
"Yes and no," said Winslow, who played 31 minutes and assumed some of the assignment of defending Leonard. "I think a little bit of it was we just kind of ran out of gas on a back-to-back like this. The first half, it was a good assessment. We were pretty much right there. The second half was a little lopsided. But I think we can learn a lot from the first half. The rest, you've got to forget about and move on."
The Heat now must balance the benefit of set-aside time to rest some of their weary veterans while also maintaining an edge to secure a top-four seed that guarantees home-court advantage in the first round.
Deng said Wednesday that his thigh bruise has lingered since last week's home loss to Charlotte. He played two games through pain, and decided with the team that it was best to sit out two additional days to heal. He hopes to return for Friday's game against Orlando.
"It was not getting better, but it's not going to be something that's long," Deng said. "We're just being smart, really. It's not something that I see is going to be long. It was just my usual running and moving was getting tighter. You can get away with a bruise during the game and the next couple of days. But after three days or so, it gets tighter and tighter. I'm just trying to get as much treatment on it."
Spoelstra insisted there were no other major injury or rest concerns with anyone else in the current rotation. That includes Wade, who is on pace to play in his most games since the 2010-11 season after he finished with 16 points on 8-of-13 shooting in his 65th outing Wednesday. The only maintenance on the horizon for the Heat is their attempt to maintain a push for the best possible playoff position.
"In cases like Lu, that was an easy decision," Spoelstra said of resting Deng against the Spurs. "We've been able to manage guys' minutes, Dwyane and Joe (Johnson). Dwyane, I think he's getting stronger, moving better, more explosive as the season goes on. I love to see it. His conditioning level is going up to another level. Hopefully, we can remain healthy, but we'll make decisions as we need to."