Once the Miami Heat’s namesake sidelined its leader, the San Antonio Spurs pounced on the opportunity and grabbed Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals in a 110-95 comeback victory.
After the air conditioning system went out of commission, the NBA’s best player, LeBron James, followed suit in a sweltering AT&T Center in San Antonio.
James led all scorers with a game-high 25 points (on 9-of-17 shooting), but suffering from severe leg cramps, the four-time league MVP was carried off the floor with the game still hanging in the balance in the final minutes.
The scene was a shame (or given LeBron’s circumstance, lame) for NBA fans, who witnessed players on each team undergoing their usual post-game rituals of icing down, much earlier — during the game — to keep cool through temperatures that approached 90 degrees inside the arena.
For Heat fans, specifically, it was even worse to see how their team folded defensively without James.
“You don’t want to see you best player come out of the came in winning time,” said guard Dwyane Wade (19 points). “We would have loved to have him in there, but we’ve got to finish the game no matter who’s on the floor.”
Head coach Erik Spoelstra admitted, “It felt like a punch in the gut when you see you leader limping like that, back to the bench… It was an unusual environment. We usually have the hotter arena this time of year… both teams had to deal with it… we’re not making any excuses.”
Just before James was forced to leave, center Chris Bosh (18 points) went on a personal 6-0 run to give Miami — which trailed 58-49 early in the third quarter — an 86-79 lead, with 9:37 remaining.
But a short while later, with the Heat up, 86-82, James missed a 19-foot jumper from the right wing with eight minutes left and immediately asked out of the game.
By the time he came back in, with 4:33 to go, the Spurs led, 94-90, after completing a game-turning 15-4 spurt, which they extended to a commanding 31-9 run to close the game.
Trying his best to remain in the game, James cut Miami’s deficit in half, to 94-92, on a layup with 4:09 left. But in intense pain, James left for good, just 10 seconds later, as the game quickly got away from the Heat thereafter.
“It was an explosion,” Spoelstra said. “The floodgates came open at that point.”
San Antonio was especially sparked by forward Danny Green, who after starting 0-for-5 through three quarters, made all four of his shots in the final period, including a trio of buckets from 3-point range, to finish with 13 points.
“I was pushing him hard,” said point guard Tony Parker (19 points, eight assists) of Green. “Every time out, I was yelling at him… I told him after the game, I was proud of him.”
While Miami missed James’ offense down the stretch, his defense had kept Green in check until James started cramping up. Spoelstra credited Green though, saying, “He has a way of shaking free when you’re concentrating on other guys.”
Regarding the arena conditions, new NBA commissioner Adam Silver said, “It is unfortunate, but these are the kinds of things that can happen at live sporting events.”
Silver’s league isn’t the only one to have a venue malfunction affect a major sport’s biggest stage. Far worse than what occurred in Game 1, was the blackout that suspended Super Bowl XLVII for more than a half-hour, 16 months ago.
Rod Thorn, the league’s president of basketball operations chalked up the situation to such a luck. “Sometimes things transpire,” he said.
In this case, what would transpire, caused all to perspire.
A former player, Thorn said, “I’ve recalled playing in [similar kind of] games in Boston Garden and Chicago Stadium.”
Ironically, the old Boston Garden was the site of the famed “Heat Game,” in Game 5 of the 1984 Finals, during which Larry Bird led the Boston Celtics to a 121-103 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers with 34 points and 17 rebounds in 97-degree heat.
Back then, the Celtics were often accused of intentionally making the Boston Garden as warm as possible for playoff opponents like the Lakers.
Although Spoelstra dismissed the notion of a similar conspiracy raised by a reporter, James — who has had a history of dealing with cramping issues over his career, and who received IV fluids after the game — told his teammates during a third-quarter timeout, “I’m gonna need some colder water. They’re trying to smoke us outta here.”
Former NBA star and current analyst Isiah Thomas, who battled those 1980s Celtics teams, joked about the reporters implication while agreeing with Spoelstra.
“It was only real in Boston,” he quipped.
Not everyone on the floor was affected in a bad way.
“It felt like my gym in high school, so I felt right at home,” Heat guard Ray Allen (16 points) said. “But it does fatigue you.”
Parker, a Belgian native who began his career in France, said with a smile, “It felt like I was playing in Europe. We don’t have A/C [in arenas there]. It didn’t bother me at all.”
Star forward Tim Duncan (team-high 21 points on 9-of-10 shooting), who was born in the U.S. Virgina Islands, where he played in high school, said of the building temperature, “It was significant. I don’t think I’ve played in anything like [that] since I left the Islands. It was pretty bad out there.”
Green noted, “I felt it in the first couple of minutes,” while adding, “We couldn’t give in to the heat.”
Or the Heat.
Game 2 of the first series to return to a 2-2-2-1-1-1 format (switching from 2-3-2) since the 1984 Finals, coincidentally will be played on the 30th anniversary of Boston’s “Heat Game,” on Sunday, after the Spurs tied an NBA record with an 11th straight Game 1 victory, to match Bird’s Celtics (1985-87) and Michael Jordan‘s Chicago Bulls (1996-98).
Head coach Gregg Popovich, after saying, “I think everybody got a little tired, a little dehydrated, for sure,” offered a solution — in typical humorous Popovich fashion — to keep his home arena much cooler for the next game.
“Hopefully, we can pay our bills,” he said.