SAN ANTONIO — LeBron James drove around Boris Diaw to bring the Miami Heat within two points but started to develop cramps the moment he landed. James was frozen near his basket, waiting for play to stop and unable to move. His teammates gathered around him. Their concern quickly morphed into fear — James hobbled to the bench, dragging his left leg to the sideline and was forced the watch the final four minutes from the bench.
With the game’s best player out, the San Antonio Spurs closed with a 16-3 run to claim Game 1 of the NBA Finals, 110-95. James scored a game-high 25 points before succumbing to heat of San Antonio’s AT&T Center, which was inexplicably without air conditioning, which likely contributed to the four-time league’s MVP developing the ill-timed leg cramp.
“It was an unusual environment,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We’re used to having the hotter arena at this time of year. But both teams had to deal with it. I think it felt like a punch in the gut when you see your leader limping like that back to the bench, but at the same time, we still had an opportunity to make plays going down the stretch.”
Motivated by revenge and redemption, the Spurs took the first step toward recovering from the agony of last year’s seven-game loss to Miami in the Finals. Tim Duncan, who scored 21 points on 9-for-10 shooting, stated before the series that the Spurs wanted Miami.
But during the critical fourth-quarter rally, Duncan watched as Danny Green made three three-pointers and scored 11 of his 13 points. Green hit a fallaway three-pointer immediately after James exited the court and Diaw made a reverse layup that put the team ahead, 99-92. After Heat point guard Mario Chalmers made a three-pointer, the Spurs put the game away when Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker hit back-to-back three-pointers. The Spurs shot 13 of 25 from long distance.
Parker had been dealing with a sore left ankle and was unable to slither into the lane early, but he scored seven of his 19 points in the final period when San Antonio shot a blistering 14 of 16 from the field and scored 36 points.
In the first NBA Finals rematch since the Chicago Bulls beat the Utah Jazz in 1997 and 1998, both teams had something to prove.
For an entire year, the Spurs had been haunted by a crushing defeat in which they held a five-point lead with 28.2 seconds left in regulation of Game 6 before a series of unfortunate events — namely an overtime-forcing three-pointer by Ray Allen — proved to be too much to overcome as they lost in seven games. But the Heat is on a quest of its own, to show that it earned a second straight championship through skill and determination more than just luck. James said that the Heat felt “slighted” by the assertion that San Antonio gave away the title.
Making its fourth consecutive Finals trip, something that hadn’t been done since Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics in 1987, the Heat is looking to become the fourth franchise to win three straight NBA championships.
Dwyane Wade, one of two players to play on every Miami team that reached the NBA Finals, was aggressive from the outset. The Heat spared Wade from the usual regular season grind to make sure that his knees were ready for the postseason. He scored 19 points and helped the Heat an 88-84 lead.
But that’s when Green finally caught fire. Green entered the fourth period 0 for 5 from the field, but he scored eight points during a 10-2 run that helped the Spurs take a 94-90 lead. Green hit back-to-back three-pointers, then he sprinted down the court after a Wade miss and Duncan fed him for a fast-break dunk, forcing the Heat to call a timeout.
James then answered with a quick layup, but would be done for the rest of the night.
The Heat has fared well in the past by losing the first game in the NBA Finals. They lost the first two games before winning the next four to defeat Dallas in 2006. They also lost Game 1 in 2012 and last year, when Tony Parker spun around, fell to the floor and hit a tough bank shot with James contesting. Miami’s lone Finals loss in 2011 came after it beat Dallas in the series opener.
The Spurs have punished teams all season with their unselfish play and crisp ball movement, but the opportunistic Heat were a step ahead of the extra pass, using their length and active hands to created deflections and turnovers. San Antonio committed 23 turnovers, with nine coming in the third period, when Miami outscored the Spurs, 29-20, and took a 78-74 lead into the fourth quarter.
Allen became an eternal villain in south Texas after his incredible three-pointer denied the Spurs a fifth championship. He continued to torment the Spurs in the third period, when he scored six straight points to turn a two-point deficit into a 73-69 lead. Leaping in front of an errant Parker pass, Allen stole the ball, dribbled up the floor and threw an elbow to get separation from Spurs reserve Marco Belinelli. Allen, who will turn 39 next month, then elevated for an emphatic one-handed jam.
The Heat appeared to be in control when Duncan fouled Chris Bosh on a three-pointer and Bosh hit the subsequent free throw to give the Heat an 86-79 lead with 9 minutes 38 seconds left in the game. Bosh finished with 18 points and nine rebounds.