It wasn’t easy at (a much cooler) AT&T Center (with the air conditioner working again) in San Antonio on Sunday night.
But ultimately, the Miami Heat did what it always has ever since the beginning of the NBA Finals two years ago — respond with a playoff win after a playoff loss, especially in a Game 2.
While LeBron James‘ cramping issues allowed the San Antonio Spurs to take Game 1 of this year’s NBA Finals, James imposed his will in the second half and the Heat took advantage of some uncharacteristic, late-game brain cramps to pull out a series-evening 98-96 Game 2 victory.
Two years ago, the Heat dropped two straight games before winning the final three of the Eastern Conference semifinals to oust the Indiana Pacers.
One round later, the Boston Celtics beat Miami three consecutive times before the Heat responded with wins in the next to games to win that series.
Those two victories started a stretch which has now reached 47 straight postseason games for Miami without consecutive losses. Only Boston (54 games, in 1962-66) and the Chicago Bulls (52 games, in 1990-93) have ever had longer such steaks.
Going back its 2012 Eastern Finals Game 6 win over Boston, the Heat has won its past 13 games after losing in the playoffs.
Six of those 13 have come in a Game 2, and four of the 13 have come against San Antonio over the past two NBA Finals (the Heat beat the Spurs following losses in Games 2, 4 and 6 last year, to capture its second straight league title).
Following a 43-all tie at halftime, James (who was 14-of-22 while making each of his three 3-point attempts) was unstoppable while scoring 14 of his game-high 35 points in a third quarter that ended with San Antonio clinging to a narrow 78-77 lead.
However, the team that often prides itself on adhering to sound system basketball and solid fundamentals, puzzlingly lost its poise in the final quarter.
“The ball stuck to us,” head coach Gregg Popovich said. “We didn’t do it as a group, we tried to do it individually and we’re not good enough to do that… it’s got to be a group effort… and that puts a lot of pressure on everything else… you move [the ball] or you die.”
Particularly unnerving for Popovich was that his own “Big Three” of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili factored heavily in failing to make plays down the stretch which came back to haunt San Antonio.
With the Spurs up, 87-85, with 6:43 left, a flagrant foul was called on point guard Mario Chalmers for a vicious elbow that floored Parker as Chalmers tried to create space on a drive under the basket.
Parker, who over the first 11 years of his NBA career, shot under 80 percent from the free throw line, but who shot 84.5 percent from there last year and 81.1 percent this season, missed two free throws while standing all alone at the foul line.
“It definitely affected me,” Parker said of Chalmers’ elbow. “But… I should have made [the free throws].”
Ten seconds later, Duncan, only a 69.4 percent career free throw shooter, was fouled. Like Parker, he missed two foul shots, as well.
Ginobili, who made all three of his free throws, said of Parker and Duncan combining for four straight misses, “It was a tough one… we were pretty poor [overall] from the line, 12-for-20.”
Completing a key seven-point swing, James buried a 3-pointer on the Heat’s next trip to put Miami up, 88-87, moments after San Antonio could have held a 91-85 edge.
Parker rebounded from his free throw misses to drain a 3-pointer that moved the Spurs ahead, 93-92, with 2:26 remaining.
But after James found Bosh for a right corner trey that put the Heat ahead to stay, 95-93, with 1:17 left, Ginobili threw a pass in the lane that hit an open Duncan in the hands, only to go out of bounds for a crucial turnover, with one minute to go.
There was a decent explanation for the play, though.
“I had the ball, I got poked in the eye [by Bosh],” Ginobili said. “So I lost sight of the situation… I don’t know exactly what happened, if it was a bad pass, too hard, [or] something.”
After that, James made one of two free throws, Ginobili missed a jumper and Bosh made a great bounce pass to Wade for a game-sealing layup that gave Miami a comfortable 98-93 lead in the final seconds.
All that Ginobili’s 3-pointer at the buzzer do was make the Spurs wonder what might have been if not for his late turnover with Duncan (who tied Magic Johnson for first place all-time, with his 157th career playoff double-double) and those earlier missed free throws.
Prior to that, James was the best offensive player on the floor, which Popovich admitted put a lot of pressure on his team when the Spurs — who led by as much as 11 points in the second quarter — had the ball.
“LeBron, with the ball, was really good,” he said. “And that made us have to be pretty perfect when we had the ball at the other end, and we weren’t.”
As for how the Heat continue to get off the mat each time it’s knocked down, it’s Miami’s leaders — it’s “Big Three” and head coach Erik Spolestra — which keep the Heat mentally focused.
Prior to tip-off, Wade addressed his teammates in a huddle, saying, “We lose, we come back, we make the adjustment. That’s what champions do!”
He also had a message for Heat haters after the game: “Keep it coming,” he said. “Hate is motivation.”
Bosh added, “When your back is against the wall, it motivates you. We still have confidence in each other and trust each other [after a loss].”
And Spoelstra keeps everyone in check. Like many, he expected James to lead Miami after the Heat’s Game 1 loss, and said that the defeat was a difficult one to process. But he also doesn’t want his team to get too high after winning Game 2.
Speaking on James, and then what immediately lies ahead after tying the series, Spoelstra said, “The best player in the game, he’ll have a response… it was painful going through that [Game 1 loss] for two days and now we have to manage the other emotion.”
If recent history continues, San Antonio better be careful not to lose two straight games from this point — because if and when Miami loses again in the series, chances are good that the Heat won’t make it two in a row.