His muscles went from cramping to flexing, his body from useless and beyond his control to empowered and fully in charge.
It was a lesson in physiology, in the marvel of human healing.
It wasn’t a miracle, it was LeBron James — although occasionally, like Sunday night, those seem like one in the same, as least to Heat fans.
James was masterful in NBA Finals Game 2 here, after cramps had limited him in the opening loss, and he lifted the Heat to a 98-96 triumph over San Antonio that levels the series at 1-1 as the Finals head to Miami for Games 3 and 4 starting Tuesday night.
He scored 35 points with 10 rebounds. He muscled into the paint. He hit jump shots. He silenced those who had savaged him on social media, mocking, questioning his toughness, belittling his succumbing to cramps. Mostly, what LeBron did was resuscitate Miami’s dream of a three-peat championship.
“Keep it coming. Hate is motivation,” said Dwyane Wade, of all the scrutiny this team endures, and of the criticism of James this week. “Obviously LeBron had it going.”
James called it “very difficult at times, very challenging” to tune out the outside noise, but said, “I know who I’m playing for and what I’m playing for.”
This is the team shaped and steeled by adversity. The LeBron-era Heat came together amid howling derision and coast-to-coast anger, mocked after losing its first Finals together. Everything has seemed an uphill climb for this group, with Miami trailing or stretched to the full seven games in 10 of 16 playoff series.
A 2-0 series hole would have been different, unprecedented, something not experienced in the Big 3 era. Teams in a 2-0 Finals hole have historically won only 9.7 percent of the time.
Lose this game and, as Dwyane Wade had put it, “I’m sure the series would be over, at least from the [opinion of the] outside.”
That is the dire straits, perception or reality, that the Heat avoided Sunday night because James took it upon himself to make it so.
Resilient Miami now has won a remarkable 47 consecutive playoff games since last losing two in a row in 2012, the third-longest such streak in league history — a streak saved by a 13-0 run now immediately following a postseason loss.
“We’ve always been able to come back and figure it out,” Wade said.
Said LeBron: “We’ve experienced it enough. We go into the film room and take account.”
The Spurs’ Tony Parker had foreseen Sunday’s rebound by Miami.
“They’re very strong mentally,” he said. “That’s why they’re the two-time champions. We know they’re very capable of coming back and winning in our place.”
James had been severely limited in Thursday’s Game 1 with severe cramping because of an air-conditioning outage in the arena, perhaps directly leading to Miami’s loss. “My body failed me,” he’d said, using the words “frustration” and “anger” to describe his feelings.
[Quick aside: Thank you, Willis Carrier. You are credited with inventing modern electrical air-conditioning in Buffalo in 1902. Your brainstorm was especially appreciated Sunday night. By Miami fans, at least].
James had been savaged on Twitter and elsewhere, leading him to call himself “the easiest target in sports.”
He’d said before Sunday’s game he still wasn’t 100 percent.
“I wouldn’t say normal,” he described himself. “But I’m ready to go.”
Coach Erik Spoelstra wasn’t sure the LeBron he’d be getting, either.
“I’m not sure,” he’d said. “We’ll read it. We’ll manage.”
They managed. James managed. He made 14 of 22 field goals including 3 for 3 on three-points shots. Miami is now 15-1 in the playoffs when James has at least 30 points and 10 boards. But few of those games have been more impressive than Sunday, given how Game 1 had ended with him on the bench and in pain.
The Spurs could not stop James near the basket or from long range.
“He carried us,” said Ray Allen.
“I trust the homework and dedication I put into the game when the cameras aren’t around,” James described his own confidence. “This was a big-time road win for us.”
San Antonio’s frustration at not being able to control James was seen in a copel of brief in-game TV interviews with coach Gregg Popovich. At halftime Doris Burke asked, “What’s your objective with LeBron?” to which the coach replied, “Are you serious?” Later she asked what the Spurs hoped for the fourth quarter. Popovich deadpanned, “I’d like to see LeBron play poorly.”
He did not cooperate.
He was not alone, though.
Chris Bosh scored 18 points, and Wade and Rashard Lewis both added 14. The defense held the Spurs to 43.9 percent shooting after they’d shot 58.8 in Game 1. Miami even outrebounded San Antonio 38-37.
Bosh’s clutch shot came on a pass from James.
“He’s the most unselfish player I’ve ever played with,” Bosh described James. “Even if he’s hot, he’ll still hit you if you’re open. And that’s what makes this team special, when your best player is willing to sacrifice a shot.”
Heat fans have the right to have exhaled Sunday over a win that avoided a 2-0 hole, and the right to feel good moving forward.
Don’t mistake this series-leveling victory to mean the Heat are now in control, though, or can claim any real momentum. Even heading home for Games 3 and 4 in Miami, it likely isn’t so. These teams are too good, too close. The Spurs are as capable of winning in what the rest of the country calls South Beach as the Heat are of winning in south-central Texas.
Buckle in for a long series. If it could go longer than seven games, it surely would.
Miami has something the Spurs do not, though. Something no other team has.
His name is LeBron. His nickname is King James.
You can mock him. You can doubt him. You can Tweet your venom.
He answered every one of you on Sunday night.