The San Antonio Spurs sported the highest-scoring bench in the NBA during the regular season.
Spurs reserves lived up to that billing Sunday night, but it wasn’t enough to save them as LeBron James and the Heat evened their best-of-7 NBA Finals with a 98-96 victory in Game 2 at AT&T Center.
The Spurs’ bench outscored the Heat’s reserves 37-12. On most nights, that would have been enough to guarantee a victory.
But this wasn’t most nights.
James, bouncing back from his Game 1 disappointment — when he was forced to sit out the final four minutes with leg cramps after an air-conditioning failure — erupted for 35 points and 10 rebounds.
“The series is just beginning, but, of course, we took a tough one [Sunday],” said Spurs’ sixth man Manu Ginobili, who scored 19 points off the bench. “We played an OK game, not perfect, but we were right there. And it slipped away.”
The Spurs were just 12 of 20 from the free-throw line.
Ginobili’s 19 points came in 28 minutes. He was 7 of 15 from the floor but just 2 of 7 from the three-point line.
His meaningless three-pointer at the buzzer provided the final margin.
The Spurs’ bench was No. 1 in scoring in the NBA during the regular season, averaging 44.5 points per game.
San Antonio also led the league in bench field-goal percentage (47.8 percent) and assists (10.9) per game.
Reserve Boris Diaw added seven points and 10 rebounds for the Spurs. But he was just 3 of 9 from the field.
Patty Mills contributed eight points in a reserve role, including 2-of-3 shooting from beyond the arc.
“We didn’t move the ball like we normally do,” Diaw said. “We missed some easy shots, and they executed at the end.
“We’ve got to find a counter to LeBron. Whether it’s one on one or helping, I don’t know.”
Ginobili and Diaw were on the floor at the end for the Spurs along with starters Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard.
The five played well together in Game 1. So when the game was on the line Sunday, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich went to the lineup again.
It wasn’t quite enough.
The Spurs’ reserves wound up a combined 14 of 36 from the floor and just 3 of 10 in the final period.
After dominating early, the Spurs could have used a little spark from the bench. Or anywhere.
With San Antonio leading 30-19 early in the second period, a series of defensive lapses allowed the Heat to get back in the game.
And eventually take the lead.
Ray Allen’s wide-open three-pointer — when Diaw inexplicably ran away from him on the wing — prompted a Spurs timeout.
And an angry reaction from Popovich.
The Heat was just getting warmed up.
Allen’s three keyed a 15-3 run that gave Miami its first lead at 34-33 with 5:07 left in the second quarter.
James then went to work, going coast to coast for a slam dunk. He added a layup and a putback to further fuel the run.
He finished the quarter with 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting after a two-point first quarter.
A Spurs’ spurt made it 41-36 with 2:55 left. But Miami rallied again to tie it 43-43 at the half.
After a sizzling first period in which they shot 58 percent, the Spurs connected on just 7 of 23 attempts in the second, including 1 of 6 from beyond the arc.
The Spurs’ bench had its moments in the third though.
Mills and Ginobili made two threes apiece, and Diaw added a basket and two assists. Those three outscored the Heat bench 12-5 in the period, making 5 of 11 from the field.
But they were not a major factor for the rest of the game. Neither was Miami’s bench, but the night belonged to James.
“He’s a great player,” Spurs reserve Marco Belinelli said of James. “The Heat are a great team. No one expected this to be easy.”