LeBron James couldn’t walk.
The stifling heat inside the building had done its job on the back-to-back MVP of the NBA Finals. Leg cramping wouldn’t allow him to continue. James’ right thigh locked up violently under the basket, and he had to be helped off the court by his teammates and trainers.
They dropped James like a heap of sweating despair on the bench and he slammed his hand on press row in disgust. It was over.
Moments later Spurs shooter Danny Green drilled a three-pointer to give the revengeful home team a five-point lead and, ultimately, Game 1 of this best-of-7 NBA Finals. The 110-95 loss for the Heat felt like a demoralizing blow. The Heat led by seven points in the fourth quarter but collapsed under all that sweltering humidity, pressure, and, well, heat, inside AT&T Center.
“Yeah, it was probably tough on both teams,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “Players were pretty dead.”
Said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra: “It felt like a punch to the gut when you see your leader limping to the bench like that.”
James led the Heat with 25 points, but couldn’t play the final four minutes of the game. The Spurs outscored the Heat 16-3 after James left the game.
It was tent-revival hot for Game 1 of the NBA Finals. According to the arena, an electrical failure disabled the air conditioning. It felt like a sauna inside the building and temperatures approached 90 degrees in the fourth quarter. The foldable hand clappers handed out at every seat doubled as makeshift fans for sweltering fans.
“They’re trying to smoke us out of here,” James said on the bench during the third quarter.
It seemed that way.
James started cramping in the second half and his muscled seized with 7:31 left in the game. The Heat called timeout to give James time to recover, but he couldn’t make it out of his courtside foldable chair to reenter the game. It would be up to Dwyane Wade, and he delivered with a clutch jumper to give Miami an 88-84 lead with 6:21 to play.
“We had opportunities,” Wade said.
But the Heat forgot to cover Danny Green.
The Spurs three-point specialist made a pair of wide-open shots from behind the arc to give San Antonio a 90-88 lead with 5:35 to play and Green went down the court for a breakaway dunk to increase that lead to four points with 4:36 left.
“He’ll shoot anything,” Chris Bosh said of Green. “He will shoot anything and that’s what makes him difficult to guard, especially with their spacing and passing.
“If you’re not ahead of the play, there always seem to be someone open on that last pass. They’re very unselfish. They get off the ball quick and as soon as you make a mistake and that’s why you got to be ahead of the play. We made some lapses and we paid for it every time.”
Spoelstra called timeout with the Spurs leading 94-90. He had to get James back in the game. That didn’t last long.
A layup by James cut the Heat’s lead to 94-92, but he couldn’t continue.
Tim Duncan led the Spurs with 21 points and Tony Parker had 19 after entering the Finals with a sore ankle. Wade had 19 points and Bosh had 18.
The Spurs won despite committing 23 turnovers. The Heat had 18 and allowed 27 points in transition. Green had 13 points for the Spurs and was 3 of 7 from three-point range. Overall, the Spurs were 13 of 25 from distance.
As for the conditions during the game, Spoelstra mentioned afterward that the Heat is used to hotter arenas “this time of year,” but disagreed with any type of conspiracy theory that the Spurs planned for the lack of air conditioning to give themselves an advantage.
“That would take an incredible mind to try to plan that,” Spoelstra said.
Said Shane Battier: “I don’t think Pop turns off the A.C. and they practice in like a Native American sweat lodge. [Popovich] is innovative. I don’t think he is that innovative.”
James started showing signs of distress in the third quarter. He settled for a layup on a drive to the basket that would normally end with a dunk and a possession later he came up short on a three-point attempt.
“The best option for me to do was not to move,” James said after he started cramping. “I tried and any little step or nudge, it would get worse. It would lock up worse and my muscles spasmed 10 out of 10.”
But as James was fading, Ray Allen somehow found young legs amid the heat and humidity and stormed down and blew past Green for a rim-rocking breakaway dunk. The unexpected dunk gave the Heat a four-point lead with 1:56 left in the third quarter and seemed to inspire James. He converted to free throws and made a spot-up three-pointer to give the Heat a six-point lead at the end of the third quarter.
It wouldn’t last. The Heat was outscored 36-17 in the final quarter.
“You know, at the end of the day, it’s no discredit for what they did,” James said. “They played extremely well.”