MIAMI — Tony Parker stumbled as he dribbled around Chris Bosh. The ball slipped from his hands as Dwyane Wade swiped and LeBron James approached. Finally, Parker fell to the floor, his left knee keeping him balanced as James crowded.
With no time to pass, Parker hopped up and dipped under James’s arm to release a shot off the glass with one-tenth of a second remaining on the shot clock. The ball bounded around the rim and dropped, with Parker’s slippery handle and even more slithery escape proving to be the difference in the San Antonio Spurs’ 92-88 victory over the defending champion Miami Heat in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
“It was a crazy play. Thought I lost the ball like three or four times,” Parker said with a grin. “At the end, I was just trying to get a shot up. It felt good when it left my hand. I was happy it went in.”
Parker howled as his teammates rushed to hug him, while a stunned James looked up, wondering how Parker managed to get rid of the ball in time. A review by officials later confirmed Parker released the shot by the most minuscule of margins, a fitting end for a tightly contested game that more than lived up expectations.
Before the game, NBA Commissioner David Stern referred to the series as “probably the most anticipated Finals in who knows, 30 years?” The series features two franchises that have won six of the past 14 NBA championships, each led by a collection of three stars — one built through drafting, development and diligence, the other through a savvy free agent spending spree. The teams also boast four former Finals MVPs, two regular season MVPs and two of the most respected and established cultures in the NBA.
“This is the Finals,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It’s elite basketball right now. There’s not a large margin for error either way. . . . That’s probably what this series is about. It’s going to go down to the last tenth of a second. Every single play, you have to push through all the way to the end. And we didn’t.”
The two sides teams exchanged body blows for the entire night, playing at their desired pace and daring their opponent to stop them. But in the end, the Spurs had stolen home-court advantage from the Heat as Parker finished with 21 points and six assists and Tim Duncan had 20 points and 14 rebounds.
“We’re here to win,” said Duncan, a four-time champion back in the Finals for the first time in six years. “It’s been a lot of years since we’ve been here. We’re just happy to be here. Old veterans or whatever you want to call us, we’re in the mix right now. Just great to get the first game under our belts.”
James was motivated to exact revenge for a humiliating sweep against San Antonio when he made his Finals debut in 2007, but he has learned from previous experience that he can’t reach the ultimate prize by himself. James, the four-time most valuable player and reigning Finals MVP, finished with a triple-double (18 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists), but the performance felt pedestrian in comparison to his dominant play throughout the postseason. After claiming that he was “20, 40, 50 times better” than he was six years ago, James was hounded by long-armed, second-year forward Kawhi Leonard (10 points, 10 rebounds) and shot just 7 for 16. He now has lost five consecutive Finals games against the Spurs.
“He made him work,” Coach Gregg Popovich said. “Nobody is going to stop LeBron James for all the reasons that we all know, but to try to make work, Kawhi did the best job he could.”
Wade has been battling a bone bruise on his right knee that appeared to rob him of his explosiveness and effectiveness for much of the postseason. But in his fourth Finals in the past eight seasons, Wade said he would find a way to get the job done. He contributed 17 points but was held scoreless in the fourth quarter, when the Spurs outscored Miami, 23-16.
Miami had been able to take advantage of teams that were either too inexperienced or careless to handle a Heat onslaught, but the methodical Spurs never got rattled or lost focus, using the calm that comes from sustained success over several years to take over in the fourth quarter. San Antonio committed just four turnovers.
The Spurs hadn’t played since completing a sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies 10 days before, while the Heat was coming off an exhaustive seven-game series against the Indiana Pacers and appeared to lose steam in the final minutes.
Danny Green gave the Spurs an 88-81 lead when he caught a pass from Manu Ginobili and buried a three-pointer, but he helped the Heat get back in the game when he fouled veteran Ray Allen on a three-pointer. Allen made all three free throws to bring Miami within two points.
Duncan made two free throws to give the Spurs a 90-86 lead, but on the next possession James drove and kicked the ball out to a wide open Bosh, who missed a three-pointer.
James later added two free throws before Parker ended the game with a sloppily successful finish. “Tony did everything wrong and then did everything right in the same possession,” James said. “That was the longest 24 seconds that I’ve been a part of.”
And for the second time this postseason, the Heat finds itself in a hole.