Miami Heat

LeBron James will feel different kind of heat in NBA Finals this time

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James prepares for NBA basketball practice, Wednesday, June 3, 2015, in Oakland, Calif. The Golden State Warriors host the Cavaliers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday.
Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James prepares for NBA basketball practice, Wednesday, June 3, 2015, in Oakland, Calif. The Golden State Warriors host the Cavaliers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday. AP

Note to the Cleveland Cavaliers: Make sure the air conditioner at Oakland’s Oracle Arena is in good working order before the start of the NBA Finals.

Or don’t.

Either way, many Heat fans in South Florida could be rooting against LeBron James when the former Heat star returns to his sport’s biggest stage Thursday night. It was this time last year Miami was abuzz for basketball after four consecutive NBA Finals. The city felt like the center of the sports universe during that run, but the joyride ended with a stunning collapse against the San Antonio Spurs in a series that got off to a bizarre and sweltering start.

An electrical failure inside the Spurs’ AT&T Center caused the arena’s air conditioning system to crash and die during Game 1, and the fourth quarter of that game featured a final four minutes of basketball that the city of Miami will not soon forget. Overcome by the stifling conditions, James’ body failed him and he was carried off the court after his legs locked up with cramps. It was the beginning of the end for the Heat, which lost to the Spurs in five games.

Needless to say, the evening of June 5, 2014 — “the air conditioner game” — is a night that will live in infamy for Heat fans. And for some diehards, the “air conditioner game” kicked into motion events that would end James’ time with the Heat, which was arguably the greatest run by a professional sports team in Miami history.

In hindsight, as Heat fans prepare to watch James in the NBA Finals with his new/old team, it all begs this hypothetical question: Had that air conditioning system not mysteriously collapsed, would James still be with the Heat?

It’s certainly plausible. If the Heat had won its third consecutive championship, James certainly would have returned to Miami in the hopes of winning four in a row.

“It is not unfathomable that the Heat could have been up 2-0 heading back to Miami,” said Dr. Paulgun Sulur, a 37-year-old lifelong Heat fan who attended every game of the 2014 Finals, including that exhausting Game 1. “History has written that the series was a blowout, but it was close when LeBron went out. Theoretically, it’s possible.”

The Heat led the Spurs by seven points early in the fourth quarter of Game 1 and only trailed by two points when James limped off the court with 4:06 remaining. After nearly collapsing next to press row, James was carried to the Heat’s bench by teammate James Jones and a trainer. The Heat won Game 2 in San Antonio, but looked so slow and outmanned in games 3, 4 and 5 that no one really remembers how close the series was in the beginning.

Dr. Sulur, who grew up in Boca Raton, is an internist in Austin. He’s a practical thinker, usually, but the Heat is different. As farfetched as it sounds, Dr. Sulur is convinced the air conditioning system at AT&T Center was sabotaged to give the Spurs some kind of advantage. Many Heat fans actually subscribe to this theory.

“Every fan is entitled to cling to a conspiracy theory, especially after the way LeBron left Miami,” Dr. Sulur said. “This is a conspiracy on the highest level by the illuminati. The free giveaway that night was a fan. Is that a coincidence?”

Temperatures on the court exceeded 90 degrees by the fourth quarter. It was beyond miserable for fans. For the players, the conditions were borderline dangerous. Crackpot conspiracy theories aside, it’s a game that will go down in NBA Finals lore forever.

“It’s hard to understand the effects of that suffocating heat,” said Dr. Sulur, who was watching from the mezzanine level that night in San Antonio. “It was hard to even concentrate on the game, to be honest. The thought crossed my mind that they should stop it. I don’t fault LeBron medically for cramping up, of course. I was just sitting there, and … the athletes playing, that’s just crazy.”

At halftime and then following the game, temperatures in the visiting locker room were hotter than they were on the court. In the concourse after, Spurs fans mocked James’ injury by carrying around friends like they were fallen comrades on a battlefield. For the Heat, that night felt like the fateful lead weight clicking into place and balancing out the scales of karma after Ray Allen’s impossible shot in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA championship series.

And while the bad news hasn’t really stopped for the Heat since that June night in San Antonio — Dwyane Wade isn’t actually thinking about leaving the Heat, is he? — James has gotten on well without his old team. In fact, up to this point, these playoffs have been far easier for James than they ever were with Miami. The Cavaliers have only lost two games the entire postseason, and James is averaging 27.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 8.3 assists during the playoffs. The only NBA player to average 27, 10 and eight throughout an entire postseason was the great Oscar Robertson, a true legend of the game.

“Could I foresee this? At the beginning of the season, I couldn’t,” James said. “But I knew I had to lead these guys, and if they just followed my leadership, I knew I could get them to a place where they haven’t been before.”

And James has done all this without one of his team’s best players for much of the postseason. Power forward Kevin Love — playing the old Chris Bosh role of James’ Heat — was ruled out of the playoffs after injuring his shoulder in Game 4 of the first round. For most Heat fans, the ease to which James has waltzed through the playoffs so far is discouraging.

“I still like LeBron as a player, but I don’t want his decision to be validated so quickly,” Dr. Sulur said. “So I’m being catty. Plus, I like [Stephen] Curry. I don’t think you’ll find many people who don’t. But if LeBron wins, a tip of the hat to him.”

Curry, the Golden State Warriors’ sharpshooting point guard, is the league’s reigning MVP. He also represents the final hope for still-jilted Heat fans. But there are actually some Heat fans rooting for James and the Cavaliers in the first Finals in five years without Miami.

“I sort of came to terms with the fact that he was likely leaving before he announced it so in some ways I guess I was prepared,” said João Gluck, a 20-year-old from North Miami Beach. “At times, though, I really miss having him on my team since he's my favorite player — especially watching him make the Finals again while my team failed to make the playoffs even.

“In the beginning, I felt we would be fine, and him leaving wouldn't be much of a road bump for our organization, but in the end a lot of us took him for granted until this point. My other friends aren't as much of LeBron fans as I am, so they couldn't care less about him. Almost all of them are rooting for Golden State.”

NBA Finals schedule

All games on ABC

GM 1: Cleveland at Golden State, 9 p.m. Thursday

GM 2: Cleveland at Golden State, 8 p.m. Sunday

GM 3: Golden State at Cleveland, 9 p.m. Tuesday

GM 4: Golden State at Cleveland, 9 p.m. June 11

*GM 5: Cleveland at Golden State, 8 p.m. June 14

*GM 6: Cleveland at Golden State, 9 p.m. June 16

*GM 7: Cleveland at Golden State, 9 p.m. June 19

Related stories from Miami Herald