SAN ANTONIO—The Miami Heat needed LeBron James back on the main floor, but he was stuck at the scorer's table, waiting to return from an unexpectedly early third quarter exit.
The game operations folks at the AT&T Center decided they needed some Nelly.
"It's getting hot in here---"
Apparently, the hosts here are better at comedic timing than central cooling, even if the fans were too busy fanning themselves—with cups, placards, purses—to crack smiles.
And, apparently James has a cramping problem.
That certainly was one of the takeaways from Thursday's 110-95 Miami loss to open the 2014 NBA Finals, as he subbed out early in the third, early in the fourth and then for good with 3:59 left in the contest, after his layup pulled the Heat within two.
Another takeaway? That his teammates—who had played well enough to that point—adjust far better to the absence of air conditioning than to the absence of their leader down the stretch. James fidgeted and frowned on the bench as the Heat treated the Spurs to a series of silly turnovers and embarrassingly open shots before he hobbled to the locker room with 1:14 remaining for I/V treatment.
That treatment continued for more than 30 minutes in the back area of the locker room, with the door only opening to allow other players in and out. After a while, with the drenched media huddling around James' vacant locker stall, league and team communications officials decided to clear out the area and let a pool reporter handle the interview whenever James was ready to emerge.
James told the reporter that he "drank a lot" and changed his uniform at halftime, and used ice bags and towels at timeouts, but that he had "never played in a building" like that, at least at this level. He has had cramping issues, however. Famously, he returned to action late in Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals against Oklahoma City to make a critical three-pointer. And he missed nine minutes in a season-opening win against the Celtics in 2012, which caused Dwyane Wade to joke the next day that serving as a Powerade pitchman was why James was cramping: "He needs some Gatorade. We got electrolytes and all that now.”
It appeared James might get through this game, after he returned with 4:33 left in the fourth. And it appeared the Heat might get a rather encouraging win, considering that James—while making some spectacular shots like a turnaround fadeaway three-pointer—had been more good than great throughout. The Heat's other three key scorers, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen had all had strong stretches, and Miami was getting plenty of open perimeter looks, enough to make up for its inability to keep Tim Duncan (9 of 10) from getting easy paint position.
Everything looked pretty good for the opening-game steal.
Then came the driving layup. It went in. He stayed put.
"The best option for me to do was not to move," James said. "I tried and any little step or nudge, it would get worse. It would lock up worse and my muscles spasmed 10 out of 10."
The tension radiated up "damn near the whole left side" of his body.
Allen fouled to stop the clock, and James was helped to the bench.
"I was going to try to give it a go and Spo said no," James said.
"At one point, he was getting up with three-and-a-half minutes to go, and I looked at him and said, 'Don't even think about it,'" Erik Spoelstra said. "You can't even move at this point."
The Spurs had no such trouble.
"After I came out of the game, they kinda took off," James said.
Faster than an SR-71 Blackbird.
"It was an explosion at that point," Spoelstra said.
In the final 3:59, San Antonio outscored Miami 16-3, with Kawhi Leonard hitting two threes, Tony Parker hitting one and Danny Green hitting another.
And on the other end?
"We didn't get good looks and you can't do that versus this team," Wade said.
To their credit, though, the Heat didn't look for excuses afterward—doing so wouldn't have played well, particularly since something similar happened here in March, when the A/C was keeping this place quite comfortable. James played 38 minutes in that game, and still the Spurs outscored the Heat 29-13 in the fourth quarter using many of the same methods.
"They broke us down," Bosh said.
The Heat publicly downplayed any trouble the temperature gave them, at least on the court. They were uncomfortable in the steamy locker room, with Wade rolling an ice bag on his head, Allen starting to sweat again right after taking a shower, Bosh promising to walk to the hotel if the team bus wasn't cool enough, and several players complaining about the media crowd.
But the game?
Bosh said he realized there was a problem when he started moving a little bit and was sweating more than usual. That was reinforced at halftime, when it was slightly cooler in the back.
"It's not the first time all of us have been hot like that," Bosh said. "The Spurs went through the same thing.... The heat has nothing to do with taking care of the basketball."
Shane Battier spoke of how every game at Duke University felt like this, and how he'd prefer a warm gym to a cold one. And when a reporter suggested that there might have been "shady business," Bosh quickly swatted away the insinuation: "I don't know and I don't care. I'm from Texas. We couldn't afford an air conditioner in high school."
The students at Lincoln High in Dallas called it "the old gym."
"You could feel it at every point in your face," Bosh said.
But Bosh didn't cramp then, and he didn't cramp Thursday.
James did, at the worst time.
"My muscles aren't as dense," Bosh said. "So I don't have to worry about that."
So do the Heat need to worry about Sunday?
James said he was feeling better after getting the I/V, and just before midnight local time he walked without too much discomfort on event-level concrete that was still slick from condensation toward the team bus.
"We're going to start tonight, continue to get the fluids in me, and get ready for Sunday," James said.
While hoping that the arena's A/C repairmen are ready for him.