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The ghosts of the 2013 NBA Finals never truly left Gregg Popovich, so the Sunday showdown in Miami between his San Antonio Spurs and the two-time defending champion Heat won't be a haunted house visit.

All those years, all those championships and the incredible run of unparalleled success, and the memories that he still can't seem to shake are the ones from those two fateful Finals games inside the American Airlines Arena. Game 6 — with the unwelcome help of LeBron James and Ray Allen, a five-point lead with 28 seconds remaining in regulation becomes an overtime loss. Game 7 — a 95-88 loss that left Popovich and his Spurs reeling.

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"Uh, it'll be a horrible memory walking in that gym," Popovich told USA TODAY Sports by phone on Thursday as his team headed for its Friday night game in Atlanta. "If I said anything different, I'd be the biggest liar that ever lived. How could I say, 'Yeah, no problem. Well, it was a tough night.' That's (expletive). We all know that.

"So the truth is that it will be horrible walking in there. I'll think about it right off the bat, but it won't be any different than what I think about every day. At some point during the day, it goes through my head. I've said it a lot of times. My hope is that over time I'll think about it every two days, and then every week and then every month and then that kind of thing."

Hope isn't floating very well at the moment, though, for Popovich or his players.

His small forward and resident defensive stopper, Kawhi Leonard, is out for at least three weeks after breaking the fourth metacarpal on his right hand in a home loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday night that knocked them out of the top spot in the Western Conference. That makes three starters in street clothes from now until who-knows-when, the others being guard Danny Green (also a finger fracture) and center Tiago Splitter (right shoulder).

Losing Leonard hurts more than the rest because of the greater context of the NBA and the part the Spurs (32-10) play in it. Elite teams that have a real chance of finishing on top must first reckon with this generation's incredible cast of small forwards, players like the Thunder's Kevin Durant (who scored 36 against the Spurs on Wednesday), the Indiana Pacers' Paul George and — as will be the case on Sunday — the Heat's LeBron James.

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"Yeah, I don't think we can (fill that void), in a pure defensive sense," Popovich said. "But you know one thing that guys like Marco (Bellinelli) and Manu (Ginobili) have is really good intelligence and a really good feel for the game. Like with (Durant), I don't care what you do, he's going to score. He's great. But trying to keep him from getting 45 is I guess the key, but we've got to do it with a team.

"We don't have an individual that's going to go stop somebody (like that). Kawhi has learned how to do that, and Bruce Bowen did it for a long time. But that's not what Bellinelli is going to do, so we've got to ask our team to guard people. So we're going to have to come up with a few different schemes. We'll play a little bit of zone, and just do a few different things to help these guys under the circumstances."

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The schedule to come is brutality defined: Entering Friday, 12 of their next 14 games were on the road, including both the current three-game trip and the nine-game marathon affectionately known as the "Rodeo Road Trip" that so often serves as a high-point of their annual journey toward playoff contention. With usual suspects Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili already leading the way like always (they're the top three in team scoring), Popovich can only hope that this trip down memory lane with his oldies-but-goodies continues.

"I'm disappointed for the team, because this is a time when we always try to make hay," Popovich said. "Historically, that 'Rodeo Road Trip,' that time before, during and after the All-Star break has always been good for us. We've got a lot of away games. It's a great time to come together and get the bunker mentality, and all that trade crap. But it works for us. So this road trip, and the one right after it, you'd like to be at full strength for that because it has been important for us getting momentum for the season. So I'm disappointed for them.

"But secondly, I'm strangely excited about playing the other guys and watching them fill in. I think it steps up the energy a little bit, because your back's against the wall. You just look at it a different way. That's kind of exciting."

Yet per Popovich's protocol, no one should expect a pity party. That idea ended way back in early October, when the Spurs took part in their annual ritual of a film session that is always intended to cleanse their basketball souls.

"We've done it every year I've been here — the first film we watch is the team that beat us the last year, and we go through it nitpicking and get after them and let them know, so that there's nobody feeling sorry for themselves and that (they know that) it wasn't about this (officiating) call or that call," Popovich said. "It wasn't the basketball Gods. It was, 'We could've done this, and we could've done that.' You've got two choices. You could bask in your own self pity and think about what we let slip away, or you can get after it and move on with your life. That's the measure of who you are."

Follow national NBA reporter Sam Amick on Twitter @sam_amick.

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