Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Steamy conditions at Game 1 of Heat-Spurs NBA Finals a bizarre, embarrassing twist

Did the Heat just lose to the Spurs, or to the heat?

What a shame there would be any doubt about that. What an outrageous embarrassment for the NBA, on its greatest stage, that a game-long lack of air-conditioning in San Antonio’s arena would leave fans sweating and, far worse, affect so crucial a game.

This night was about the heat in all its forms.

The literal kind draped itself over the arena here like a sopping blanket due to an electrical problem that powered the AC, sending temperatures above 90 degrees.

The Heat that starts with a capital letter withered in the conditions, squandering a fourth-quarter lead to the Spurs and losing, 110-95, in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

And now the figurative kind of heat, the bad kind, the kind that weighs heavy, is on Miami.

It was a bizarre night, an unfortunate one for this city and for the league, not just for Miami.

The lack of air-conditioning in the arena left the atmosphere almost unbearably hot, spectators fanning themselves with programs as if outdoors in the Sahara at noon. Luckily one team is from a tropical climate where humidity is king, and the other resides in what feels like northern Mexico, so hot here the eggs fry while still in the chicken.

Still, what a holy embarrassment for San Antonio and the NBA for its Finals to open with no AC. What’s in store for Sunday’s Game 2 here? Flickering lights? Massive plumbing backup?

It affected the game.

You can say it should have affected both teams equally, but if it affected the Heat and especially LeBron James more – as it certainly seemed to – that should be no fault of Miami’s. No game should be played in these conditions – let alone one so hugely important, perhaps season-defining.

Don’t get this wrong. There were other reasons Miami lost. The defense saw San Antonio shoot 59 percent. The Heat was outrebounded. The Spurs scored 48 points in the paint. And I give Heat coach Erik Spoelstra credit for not blaming the loss on the AC outage that led to James’ cramps.

Still, the game changed when the conditions forced James out. There is no denying it.

“It sucks at this point in time in the season,” said James afterward. “I lost all the fluids that I was putting in. I tried and any little step or nudge, it would get worse. I mean, it’s frustration and anger. It was extremely hot in the building.”

At one point James waved himself out of the game for a rest at a time when he normally would not. He complained of difficulty breathing in the steamy humidity.

“They’re trying to smoke us out of here,” a miked-up LeBron said during a timeout after asking to come out, floating a conspiracy theory.

During the fourth quarter James, who had 25 points, cramped up and again had to briefly leave the game. After he came back, cramps struck again. He could hardly move and had to come right out again, the Spurs overtaking the lead during this time.

“It was like a punch in the gut,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.

James could not return – he played only five minutes in the fourth quarter and missed the final 3:59 of the game – and already was in the lockerroom as the game ended. Miami saw a seven-point lead 2 ½ minutes into the fourth quarter collapse as James struggled due to the conditions.

James is prone to cramping, but there is no doubt the conditions exacerbated the problem.

I’m not a conspiracy monger. Just saying the AC fiasco ended up changing the game to the Heat’s detriment, a shame given the stakes.

“It was significant,” said the Spurs’ Tim Duncan of the cool-air outage. “I don’t know what happened to LeBron, but we were all dehydrated.”

“It’s like playing in my old high-school gym,” Miami’s Chris Bosh was overheard during the game. “There’s no air movement.”

“A bad situation,” admitted Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

The situation was enough a controversy that NBA president of operations Rod Thorn was called into an impromptu news conference to explain.

“If the referees thought the game should not be continued, they would have said something to me,” he said. “In live sporting events, sometimes things transpire that you don’t expect. It’s just one of those unfortunate things.”

Despite the air-conditioning snafu, as NBA Finals encores go, the start of this one lived up and that figures to continue. Last year’s Heat-Spurs championship series was one of the most memorable in league history, stretched taut to the very end of the full seven games. If that was the Godfather, this one opened like Godfather II. Something great is being followed by something that might be even better.

There was no letup Thursday until LeBron’s cramping changed everything. The pace was frenetic. Who led kept changing.

If this whole Finals is going to be anything like Thursday’s Game 1, both arenas ought to have cardiologists on call.

“Every game is a Game 7,” LeBron had told his teammates moments before the tipoff. “Treat it that way!”

Both teams did.

The Heat entered this NBA Finals seeming like a spectacularly unlikely, preposterously unbelievable underdog.

The betting lines could say they were.

The fan polls could say they were.

The media experts could say they were.

But wouldn’t LeBron and the champion’s pedigree of his team have something different to say?

An hour before tipoff Miami’s top player called this night “an opportunity for our team to make a statement in a hostile building.”

The unspoken statement might have been something like, “How dare you call the world’s best player and his two-time defending champions an underdog to anybody!”

Instead the game served to justify who came into this series seen as the favorites.

The San Antonio Spurs are that good.

The thing is, the question of the conditions hangs as heavily over this result as the humidity hung inside the arena.

Now, once again, the Heat’s resiliency will be tested.

It has been the bedrock mantra of Miami’s long run toward three consecutive NBA championships, following every postseason loss, every tendril of doubt.

“We don’t panic,” as James puts it.

Miami has played 46 consecutive playoff games without losing two in a row, a remarkable streak dating to June 1-3, 2012. During that stretch the Heat is 11-0 following a defeat, and that includes 4-0 in the Finals, when every loss seems crushing but isn’t, necessarily.

“We’ve always been able to come back and figure it out,” added Wade.

They’ll have to now or carry a 2-0 deficit back to Miami.

The shame – for the league, not just for Miami – is wondering whether the lack of air conditioning that led to James’ cramps and early exit may have played a heavy, determining hand in this result.

That’s a heck of a cloud on top of the NBA Finals just as they begin.

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