SAN ANTONIO — LeBron James had two days to load up on intravenous fluids, stretch out his body with yoga and draw motivation from a painful loss in which his body “failed” and the Miami Heat crumbled in his absence.
His physical shortcomings at the most inopportune time three nights earlier ushered in the latest round of ridicule for the self-proclaimed “easiest target in sports,” but James silenced his critics — for one night, at least — with a sublime performance that sent his team back to Miami with the NBA Finals tied at one game apiece following a 98-96 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday at AT&T Center.
James scored a game-high 35 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and handed out three assists — including a pass to Chris Bosh for the go-ahead three-pointer with 1 minute 18 seconds remaining — to remind the viewing public what a four-time MVP is capable of when he gets upset.
“What happened Thursday happened Thursday,” James said of Game 1, when severe leg cramps forced him to miss the final four minutes of the contest. “My whole focus was how I was going to help this team even the series and just try to make some plays.”
The Heat has won five consecutive series in which it lost the first game, but the one constant in each of those situations is that it also won Game 2. Bosh had 18 points and Dwyane Wade scored just 14 points, but his layup with 9.4 seconds remaining sent fans heading for the exits. Game 3 will be Tuesday.
With the new 2-2-1-1-1 Finals format, the Spurs were probably in a more pressing need to claim the first two games at home to provide some extra cushion, considering they have lost three consecutive Finals games at American Airlines Arena. The past two losses were the most haunting, with Ray Allen’s three-pointer to force overtime in Game 6 last year robbing the San Antonio and Duncan of a fifth NBA title.
The Spurs have talked all season about how they too were often on the side of misfortune during last year’s Finals, but they have had a few moments work out in their favor over the course of the first two games.
James was forced to leave Game 1, and San Antonio closed with a decisive 16-3 run. And the Spurs were presented another opportunity midway in the fourth quarter of Game 2, but they failed to capitalize, contributing to a costly loss that snapped a nine-game home winning streak this postseason.
With the Spurs up 87-85 midway through the fourth quarter, Heat guard Mario Chalmers was assessed a technical foul when he elbowed Spurs point guard Tony Parker in the midsection. But the Spurs missed four free throws on the subsequent possession — two by Parker and two more by Tim Duncan — and watched as James hit a three-pointer to complete a seven-point swing that eventually tilted victory to the Heat.
“It was a tough one,” Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said after scoring 19 points off the bench. “We got a stop, flagrant foul. We got an opportunity to score four points in a play, and we get to the line and miss all four. That hurts.”
Parker scored a team-high 21 points and Duncan had 18 points and 15 rebounds, tying Magic Johnson with the all-time mark for playoff double-doubles with 157. But Duncan went scoreless in the fourth quarter, missing his only field attempt and those free throws.
Parker admitted the blow to the gut affected him on the free throws, but he still thought the Spurs should’ve won the game. Ginobili whipped a pass out to Parker, who knocked down a three-pointer to put the Spurs ahead 93-92 with 2:25 left.
But the Spurs wouldn’t score again until Ginobili hit a meaningless three-pointer as time expired. In the time in between, Ginobili missed a three-pointer, threw a pass through Duncan’s hands and missed another short jumper.
“We were up one with one minute and a half to go. We just couldn’t make the stop to come up on top,” Parker said. “We had a great opportunity.”
The sweltering heat at AT&T Center caused James to sweat at such an alarming rate in the series opener that he needed to change uniforms at halftime and inevitably was forced to leave the game. Barely able to move, James had to grimace and grumble, helplessly.
The Spurs announced the power failure that contributed to the malfunctioning air conditioning in the arena had been fixed. Parker said that as a competitor, he wanted the Heat at full strength for Game 2, but James made sure San Antonio got a man on a mission. James has looked for Bosh in the same corner three times this postseason. Bosh buried a huge three-pointer to secure a win in Brooklyn and missed another in Indiana that led to an inane debate about James’s desire to take the shot at the end.
On Sunday, the entire Spurs defense was focused on James, but he couldn’t ignore his wide-open teammate, and Bosh coolly drained a shot that he has learned to master, in an effort to help spread the floor for his slashing teammates, since coming to Miami four years ago.
“As soon as my guy leaves, one of two things is going to happen: LeBron is going to shoot it and I’m getting back on defense, or he’s going to pass to me and I’m going to shoot it,” Bosh said. “That’s what makes this team special because your best player is willing to sacrifice a shot, a good shot for a great. You just have to commend him for that. . . . I had plenty of time to shoot the ball, and you let repetition take over.”
In a game the Heat had to win, James let his reputation take over.