While LeBron James’s leg cramp stole the spotlight in Game 1, the real story was the San Antonio Spurs’ near-perfect offensive performance in the fourth quarter.
In Game 2, however, the Miami Heat bounced back with its own brilliant fourth-quarter performance and won Game 2, 98-96, evening the series at 1-1.
The Heat held the Spurs to just 18 points on 6-of-17 shooting (35.3 percent), including six points on 2-of-7 shooting over the final 4 minutes 38 seconds.
While Miami was only slightly more efficient offensively — they scored just 21 points on 7-of-16 shooting (43.8 percent) in the final frame — they scored on their final three possessions, with Chris Bosh’s go-ahead three-pointer in the right corner with 1:18 remaining and Dwyane Wade’s layup with nine seconds left clinching the game.
So, what was the key difference between the fourth quarters of Games 1 and 2?
Well, for starters, James was healthy and back to playing like the best player in the world, finishing with 35 points (14-of-22 shooting) and 10 rebounds. With the A/C back on and his dehydration a distant memory, James played the final 9:22 and swung the game in Miami’s favor.
With James on the floor in the Finals, the Heat has a net rating of +6.4 (point differential per 100 possessions). When he’s off the floor, though, Miami’s net rating drops to -37.7. That’s a staggering 44.1-point swing per 100 possessions.
The team has mustered a 91.7 offensive rating — points scored per 100 possessions — in the 26 minutes he’s sat on the bench, as the offense congests and devolves into Wade post-ups and Bosh contested jumpers.
James caught fire from the perimeter in the third quarter and carried it over to fourth, scoring eight points and dishing to Bosh for his corner three.
Speaking of Bosh, he shot 27.3 percent (9 for 33) from the right corner in the regular season (his lowest mark on the floor), but that number has bumped 52.9 percent (9 for 17) in the playoffs. His Game 5 miss against Indiana was essentially the same look, but against the Spurs it dropped.
The Heat has long been far from conventional, and they used an unorthodox style of pick and roll to breakdown the Spurs’ defense.
Instead of having big men like Bosh, Chris Andersen or Rashard Lewis come up and set a screen for James, the Heat had Wade, Ray Allen or Mario Chalmers do so. Since the Spurs wings aren’t used to defending screeners in the pick and roll, they were forced to switch or endure moments of confusion and hesitation.
Any confusion or hesitation against James, no matter how brief, is a death knell.
Miami went to the 1-3 and 2-3 pick and roll on three of their final four possessions, allowing James to set up Bosh for two corner threes (he made one and missed one) and drive to the rim and get fouled.
Defensively, James switched onto Tony Parker and kept him in check just like last Finals, with a slight assist from Mario Chalmers’ flagrant-foul elbow to Parker’s midsection about halfway through the quarter.
Perhaps the biggest effect James has had on the Heat’s defense in the Finals is making sure everybody stays “on a string”, rotates and closes to shooters, as the Spurs’ three-point shooting drops from 69.2 percent to 42.1 percent with James on the floor.
His length and athleticism bothers Parker and prevents the chaotic breakdowns that allow San Antonio’s offense to thrive. That definitely played a hand in the Spurs’ offense stalling and sputtering down the stretch, especially when considering their prowess over the previous seven quarters (70-of-133 shooting, 52.6 percent).
They were uncharacteristically ineffective in plays that ended with the ball-handler or screener of the pick-and-rolls taking a shot, turning the ball over or getting fouled, scoring on only two of 14 plays (14.3 percent), per Synergy Sports.
What a difference having the best player in the world on the floor in crunch-time makes.
As the series shifts to Miami for Game 3, there is a lot at stake. In a tied NBA Finals series, the winner of Game 3 has won 30 of 36 times (83.3 percent). I can’t wait until Tuesday.
Jovan Buha is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, CA. You can find his work at ClipperBlog, FOX Sports West and ESPN Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter at @jovanbuha.