SAN ANTONIO — LeBron James muscled his way around Boris Diaw for a layup that brought the Miami Heat within two points and then took one sideways gallop that ended his night. A severe leg cramp took over James’s left leg, leaving him frozen near his basket, waiting for play to stop so that he could somehow make the full-court journey back to his bench.
Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers and Chris Bosh gathered around him, concerned. Every time James dragged his leg forward and grimaced, those worries morphed into fear — especially after James had to be carried to the bench, where he spent the final four minutes of the game as a spectator for what turned out to be a nightmarish finish for Miami in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
With the game's best player out, the San Antonio Spurs closed with a devastating 16-3 run to claim a runaway 110-95 victory. James scored a game-high 25 points before succumbing to heat of the AT&T Center, which was inexplicably without air conditioning because of a power malfunction and contributed to the four-time league's most valuable player developing the ill-timed leg cramp.
“It’s frustration and anger,” James said of his emotions after the loss. “It [stinks] not being out here for your team, especially at this point in the season. It was an unusual circumstance. I’ve never played in a building like that. It’s been a while, like high school game or CYO.”
Motivated by revenge and redemption, the Spurs took the first step toward recovering from the agony of last year's seven-game loss to Miami in the Finals. Tim Duncan scored a team-high 21 points on 9-of-10 shooting after stating before the series that the Spurs wanted Miami and “we’ll do it this time.”
“We’re one step closer to four wins, it doesn’t matter what happened last year,” Duncan said. “We know there is a lot of things we can clean up, and we’re going to come in here on Sunday and hopefully play better and come out with another one.”
Duncan watched as Danny Green carried the team in the fourth quarter, connecting on three three-pointers and scoring 11 of his 13 points. Green hit a fallaway three-pointer immediately after James exited the court and Diaw made a reverse layup that put the team ahead, 99-92. After Heat point guard Mario Chalmers made a three-pointer, the Spurs put the game away when Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker hit back-to-back three-pointers. The Spurs shot 13 of 25 from long distance and had 30 assists, which allowed them to compensate for committing 23 turnovers
“We felt like they were getting tired,” Spurs Parker said after scoring 19 points and handing out eight assists. “LeBron was asking to be subbed. We like, ‘Let’s keep pushing.’ ”
Both teams had to deal with the bizarre, sauna-like conditions but Parker joked that the Spurs may have been better equipped to handle it. Parker had been dealing with a sore left ankle and was unable to slither into the lane early, but he scored seven points in the final period when San Antonio shot a blistering 14 of 16 from the field and scored 36 points.
“Me, personally, it didn’t bother me. Felt like in Europe,” said Parker, a native of France. “We never have A/C in Europe, so it didn’t bother me at all.”
Duncan, who grew up on the U.S. Virgin Islands, said, “I don’t think I’ve ever played in anything like since I left the islands. It was pretty bad out there.”
The training staffs for both teams gave players ice bags and cold towels during timeouts, while James labored for much of the fourth quarter despite loading up on fluids at halftime and even changing his uniform. Rod Thorn, the NBA’s president of basketball operations, likened the heat to when he played in older arenas in Boston and Chicago but said the league didn’t intervene because the court was safe and “there was no one slipping.”
In the first NBA Finals rematch since Chicago beat Utah in 1997 and 1998, both teams had something to prove.
For a year, the Spurs had been haunted by a crushing defeat in which they held a five-point lead with 28 seconds left in regulation of Game 6 before a series of unfortunate events — namely an overtime-forcing three-pointer by Ray Allen — proved to be too much to overcome in a seven-game series loss. But the Heat is on a quest of its own, to show that it earned a second straight championship through skill and determination more than just luck. James said that the Heat felt "slighted" by the assertion that San Antonio gave away the title.
Making its fourth consecutive Finals trip — something that hadn't been done since Larry Bird's Celtics in 1987 — the Heat is looking to become the fourth franchise to win three straight NBA championships.
The Heat has fared well in the past by losing the first game in the NBA Finals. It lost the first two games before winning the next four to defeat Dallas in 2006. It also lost Game 1 in 2012 against Oklahoma City and last year, when Parker spun around, fell to the floor and hit a tough bank shot with James contesting. Its lone Finals loss in 2011 came after it beat Dallas in the series opener.
Miami appeared to be in control when Duncan fouled Chris Bosh (18 points, nine rebounds) on a three-pointer and Bosh hit the subsequent free throw to give the Heat an 86-79 lead with 9 minutes 38 seconds left in the game. Wade, one of two players to play on every Heat team that reached the NBA Finals, scored 19 points and made a pull-up jumper to give the Heat an 88-84 lead.
But that's when Green finally caught fire. Green entered the fourth period 0 for 5 from the field, but he scored eight points during a 10-2 run that helped the Spurs take a 94-90 lead. Green hit back-to-back three-pointers, then he sprinted down the court after a Wade miss and Duncan fed him for a fast-break dunk, forcing the Heat to call a timeout.
“That’s what he does,” Popovich said of Green. “That’s his major skill. If he’s not going to do that, then we might as well play somebody else. That’s the honest to God’s truth. I thought the percentages were with him. So we stuck him back out there and he came through.”
James then answered with a quick layup, but never saw the court again after teammates James Jones helped carry him to bench and tossed him into a chair.
“You know, you don’t want to see your best player come out of the game, anytime, especially when he couldn’t put pressure on his leg,” Wade said. “He’ll be fine. Obviously, we would’ve loved to have him in there to finish the game, but we’ve got to finish the game better, no matter who is on the floor.”