LeBron's Absence Overshadows San Antonio Spurs' Brilliant 4th Quarter

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistJune 6, 2014

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JUNE 05:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat is helped off the court after cramping up against the San Antonio Spurs during Game One of the 2014 NBA Finals at the AT&T Center on June 5, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The air conditioning was broken at the AT&T Center during Game 1 of the NBA Finals and—for most of the game—so too was the San Antonio Spurs' offense. 

That all changed in the fourth quarter.

Despite 22 turnovers for the game, San Antonio clamped down and put on a shooting display for the ages in the fourth quarter—a quarter LeBron James missed much of due to cramping. San Antonio ultimately prevailed by a final score of 110-95, clinching the game with a remarkably efficient spurt in the final frame.

It's hard to imagine James single-handedly altering all those shots, but onlookers will remain as focused on his status as they are on the Spurs' brilliance.

And that's too bad. As ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy suggested during the game, no one wants "circumstances" to change the opposition. You want to beat a team at its very best. Without James on the floor, Miami certainly wasn't that.

The Spurs will take the win either way. They saw James' absence as an opportunity to strike and put the game away.

The extra confidence couldn't hurt. More than anything LeBron did, the Spurs were beating themselves for much of Thursday night.

It was also important because it demonstrated a much-needed killer instinct, the kind of instinct the Spurs seemed to sorely miss in 2013. Indeed, the ability to close games out decisively has become a pattern for San Antonio in these playoffs. The Spurs aren't just winning games. They're dominating them—especially at home. 

Danny Green's game was a microcosm of San Antonio's resilience down the stretch. After missing his first five field-goal attempts, he came alive late—finishing the game with 13 very timely points. After the game, Green told reporters (via ESPN's coverage), "Being in this league a couple years has helped me," suggesting that his confidence has grown in situations when he may get off to a slow start.

The Spurs' confidence has grown leaps and bounds, as well.

This is a team that truly believes it can beat Miami. After a back-and-forth contest in which the Heat consistently answered San Antonio's runs with runs of their own, it began to look like this just wasn't the Spurs' game. The Heat were up by two points with seven minutes to go in the contest.

The difference in the game's waning moments wasn't James. It was San Antonio's poise. Head coach Gregg Popovich's club settled itself down after a number of errant passes.

In some respects, those turnovers were symptomatic of what makes the Spurs so great. They're determined to keep the ball moving, even in the face of Miami's swarming defense—even as Erik Spoelstra's troops darted into passing lanes and came up with the ball.

When it was all said and done, the Spurs finished with 30 assists.

With the game on the line, there was no hero-ball. There was no attempt by Tony Parker or Tim Duncan to win the game on his own. There was a commitment to the system, a willingness to look for guys like Green despite his struggles. That discipline and confidence in the game plan is what separates the Spurs from so many teams.

It may just be the reason they prevail in these NBA Finals.

San Antonio's ensemble approach was especially valuable on a night when players were subject to 90-degree temperatures.

The Spurs got 34 points from their second unit.

They also got valuable contributions from starting role players like Green and Tiago Splitter, who finished with 14 points. With heat and fatigue almost certainly becoming a factor, San Antonio's depth allowed them to weather the storm and hang around in a game that was Miami's to lose.

And that's when the fourth quarter happened.

Miami had its opportunities to keep the game close, but no one rose to the occasion with James in and out of the game. Dwyane Wade had just two points in the final frame despite scoring a solid 19 points on the night. More importantly, the Heat made mistakes during crucial moments, allowing Green to get open for three treys that helped turn the game around.

Two big questions will linger between now and Game 2.

First, will the Spurs be able to ride their fourth-quarter momentum to another victory? It's hard to see San Antonio getting off to another sloppy start, and its late-game rhythm could certainly help avert just that. Perhaps there were some jitters. Perhaps there was some pressing. Whatever the cause, San Antonio's execution hit its stride late, and that could seriously damage Miami's chances on Sunday night.

Second, what will Miami get out of James?

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JUNE 05:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat sits on the bench after leaving the game in the fourth quarter with cramps against the San Antonio Spurs during Game One of the 2014 NBA Finals at the AT&T Center on June 5, 2014 in San Antonio
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

There's certainly a chance the cramps go away, never to be seen again. James could bounce back with an epic performance for all we know.

But if the cramps reappear, Miami's in deep trouble.

James is essential to everything the Heat do. He's the team's best scorer, passer and defender. Without him at 100 percent, this would be a short series.

San Antonio has to prepare for either contingency, and rest assured it will be. Good as the Spurs are from an X's and O's standpoint, its their psychological preparedness that's truly exceptional. No one in that locker room is doubting what LeBron's capable of.

James' absence will steal headlines, but it's unlikely to detract from San Antonio's focus on the bottom line.

That doesn't mean it will be all smooth sailing for Popovich and Co. Game 1 revealed some very real problems with the Spurs' dependence on ball movement. Sometimes that ball moves to the wrong team. That's an especially acute risk thanks to Miami's length and ability to anticipate the pass.

Don't underestimate that anticipation factor. Ray Allen had five steals Thursday night, and that had a lot more to do with craftiness than sheer athleticism. 

Many of San Antonio's turnovers were technically unforced, but Miami's pressure had a lot to do with the Spurs rushing things and making poor decisions. So yes, there will be some adjustments for the Spurs to make—and they'll start making them by looking at what worked in that fourth quarter.

With or without James around, the Spurs were at their best when it mattered most. And they seem to be making a habit out of it.