MIAMI (AP) — For much of the two previous seasons, one of the constant questions about the Miami Heat revolved around the team's struggles down the stretch of close games.
Already this season, the Heat have pulled off six fourth-quarter comebacks — out of 14 games — and are a perfect 5-0 in games decided by five points or less. The most recent in this string of rallies came Thursday, when Miami trailed San Antonio by seven with 4:48 left before finishing on a 20-8 run to pull out a 105-100 win.
Maybe it's exhausting. Maybe the wins are ugly. Maybe the Heat have become too reliant on a finishing kick.
Whatever the reason, whatever the effect, the bottom line is that the reigning NBA champions are off to the best start in the Eastern Conference. The Heat will look to further cement that spot on Saturday night when they play host to the Brooklyn Nets.
"You can't take that for granted and that's not understated," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Miami's penchant for late-game heroics. "Your late-game execution on both ends of the court really matters against quality opponents because you're always going to be dealing with close games. And when you don't build that confidence, that's a tough thing to capture."
He knows that all too well. Two seasons ago, when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were teammates for the first time, Miami lost eight of its first nine games that were decided by five or fewer points.
The inverse seems to be true now.
"It's just experience," Bosh said. "We don't let it get to us. Sometimes it happens, whether it's good defense, bad defense, whether they hit a shot in our face, whatever the circumstance is, we're down eight or we're down seven, we kind of just put everything beside us and focus on the next play. I think we've done a much, much better job of that, of just accepting where we are at that point and time."
They have done it several times this month:
— Nov. 4 vs. Denver. Down six with 7:04 left, the Heat used a four-point play by Ray Allen in the final seconds to pull off 119-116 win.
— Nov. 9 at Atlanta. Trailing with 2:33 remaining, Miami closed on a 10-2 run to beat Atlanta 95-89.
— Nov. 12 at Houston. Down eight with 5:05 left, and still down four with 1:29 to play, Miami scores the final seven points to win at Houston 113-110.
— Nov. 21 vs. Milwaukee. Miami was behind by six with 5:20 remaining before winning in overtime.
— Nov. 24 vs. Cleveland. The Heat were down by seven with 1:58 left, before Allen's 3-pointer with 18 seconds remaining put Miami up for good.
— Thursday vs. San Antonio. The game will go down as the one where the Spurs sat four regulars and were criticized by NBA Commissioner David Stern for that choice, though the ending was memorable as well with Allen hitting yet another final-seconds 3-pointer to help Miami escape.
And that list doesn't even count things like Boston getting within four points with 2 minutes remaining before the Heat won the season-opener on Oct. 30; Denver having a shot in the final minute to take the lead on its home floor on Nov. 15; or quickly blowing a 15-point lead and falling into a tie at Phoenix on Nov. 17 before ultimately prevailing.
The thinking, James said, in those situations is simple: "Here we go again."
"I don't think anything changes," James said. "I think, just for us, I don't even want to say it's a sense of urgency because we try to play like that all the time and sometimes it just doesn't work out that way. I guess I feel like a quarterback who has a 2-minute drill — 'Let's go now, no huddle, go on the fly, everyone just read and react both offensively and defensively and try to make some plays. We can win in any circumstances."
Having someone like Allen certainly helps.
Allen has hit huge 3's late against Denver, Cleveland and now San Antonio. In the final two minutes of regulation and overtime, he's shooting 6 for 8, with James assisting on five of those six field goals.
"It is nothing that we work on," Allen said. "It is just playing the game of basketball down the stretch."