Instead another James virtuoso act with his teammates falling in line, the four-time most valuable player followed the lead of point guard Mario Chalmers and the boundless energy of Chris Andersen. James then set up three-point shooters Mike Miller and Ray Allen until he was ready to provide the finishing touches — a thunderous dunk and an emphatic block — in the fourth quarter.
“That’s when they’re at their best. That’s when every team is at their best,” Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said. “When the perimeter is making shots, when the bench is playing well, when you have a lot of contributors, that helps you win basketball games.”
On an unusual night in which role players switched roles with superstars, the Heat had the decided edge as Chalmers scored a game-high 19 points and Allen chipped in with 13. Wade declared the game a “must-win” since no team had ever lost the first two Finals games at home and recovered to win the series. James had 17 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, but Wade and Bosh were both on the bench during a decisive, 25-2 second-half run that allowed Miami to head to San Antonio for Tuesday’s Game 3 with its pride and confidence intact.
The three previous times that Miami lost the first game in a playoff series, it went on to win the series in five games, including the Heat’s victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in last year’s Finals. The chances of repeating that against a more experienced Spurs team is low, especially with the next three games at AT&T Center.
“We just played Miami Heat basketball,” Wade said after Miami avoided losing consecutive games for the first time since Jan. 8-10. “That’s the way we won all year, getting everyone involved. Obviously, there are going to be certain games where guys will have to be special, but we like to have games like this.”
Tony Parker made a ridiculous, broken-play bank shot in the closing seconds to lead the Spurs to a win in Game 1, but he didn’t have the chance to deliver any heroics, with the Heat stifling him and cutting off driving lanes. Parker found a small seam to make a floater to bring the Spurs to 69-65 with 1 minute 26 seconds left in the third quarter, but James found Miller for a three-pointer and Miami scored the next 15 in a row.
“We wanted to put them away and send a message,” said Chalmers, who converted a three-point play at the end of the third quarter that put Miami ahead, 75-65. “It just gave everybody a mental edge to go for the kill.”
The Heat broke triple-digits but won the game on the defensive end as it forced the Spurs into 17 turnovers, which led to 19 points. San Antonio had just four turnovers in Game 1, with Parker committing none. But Parker had five against a swarming Heat defense that got deflections, read passes and disrupted the Spurs offense, limiting Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili to 10-of-33 shooting and 27 combined points.
“We didn’t play well. We didn’t shoot well. And I played awfully,” said Duncan, the future Hall of Famer who had his worst shooting performance in 24 Finals games, scoring just nine points on 3-of-13 shooting. “Whatever it may be. They responded better than us. . . . They outplayed us.”
With the long arms of Kawhi Leonard giving him little room to operate, James was held to just four points on 2-of-7 shooting in the first half — his worst first-half performance in the postseason. James got a kiss from his mother, Gloria, as he headed to the locker room, but still needed some time before he could put his imprint on the game.
James was alone on the fast break and missed a layup, then got the ball in the low post and missed a point-blank layup. He finally got going in late in the third quarter when Chalmers found him cutting to the basket and James made a difficult left-handed layup over Duncan as he fell on his back.
James scored eight points and had three assists during the decisive run and energized his team when he blocked an attempted dunk by Tiago Splitter then found Allen in the corner for a three-pointer. Miller would later return the favor when he picked off a bad pass from Parker and tossed the ball over his head to James, who elevated for a two-handed dunk, swung on the rim and boisterously kicked out his leg before stomping down the floor.
“I just wanted to, I guess, make an impact in some way,” James said. “I don’t really read into it of what people want more or me or whatever the case may be.”