SAN ANTONIO — The synonym generator at thesaurus.com lists 19 alternatives for “sweltering,” none of them sufficient enough to describe the atmosphere inside the AT&T Center for Thursday night’s Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
It was swampy, stuffy, oppressive, baking, burning, humid, scorching, stifling and many more decidedly unpleasant things.
The mercury kept climbing—past 90 degrees. The air turned heavier by the quarter. Foreheads and dress shirts turned damp. Floors turned slick with condensation. Across the arena, some 18,000 people rhythmically fanned themselves with their “Go Spurs Go” placards.
Call it the Humidity Bowl.
You can also call it an utter embarrassment—for the NBA, for the Spurs and for whomever is in charge of ensuring that critical electrical systems at the AT&T Center are functioning for a major event.
“The air conditioning system essentially failed,” said Rod Thorn, the NBA’s president of basketball operations, who became the first league official ever to take the postgame podium. “We think it will be fixed come Sunday,” he added, sounding more hopeful than confident.
Thorn said there was never any consideration to stopping or postponing the game.
“What you are looking for is to make sure that the conditions on the court are fine, and in this case there was no one slipping,” Thorn said. “Once the game starts, it's in the hands of the referees.”
Had the referees felt there was any risk to the players, “then they would have come over and said something to me,” Thorn said. “Never did. I never said anything to them regarding the fact that the game should be canceled.”
At this point, at least, the NBA is not planning for any contingencies in the event that the air conditioning system remains inoperable.
Commissioner Adam Silver called the matter “unfortunate,” but he was in no mood to elaborate. His exasperation and perspiration were both evident.
Were the tropical conditions a factor in the game? Most certainly, though as players on both teams repeatedly noted, everyone had to contend with the same hot, heavy air.
Yet only James, who has a history of cramping troubles, was severely affected, leaving us with this nagging conundrum: Would the result have been different if not for James’ cramps? If not for the inexplicable, unbearable heat in the arena? If not for a crippled air conditioning system? Might we one day remember this as the year that the Heat were beaten by the heat?
It’s way too soon for that, of course. The Spurs hold a 1-0 lead, same as they did one year ago in Miami, and we know how that series ended. There is, as they say, a lot of basketball left to play, presumably in much better conditions.
Yet it doesn’t make it any less disturbing to see the game’s greatest star felled by something as mundane as a faulty compressor. Championships are won and lost by the smallest of things—a rebound, a hesitation, a shot two inches off course, a turned ankle, an untimely cramp.
That this was a wholly avoidable injury, a freak occurrence caused by a freak occurrence, had to make it that much more galling to the Heat, though they betrayed no anger in the aftermath.
“It was an unusual environment,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It’s unfortunate that it was that way.”
Coaches and trainers told their players to hydrate, which was about all anyone could do. And still, the temperature kept climbing.
“Guys were tired,” said the Spurs’ Danny Green. “Guys were dragging. We knew eventually they would get tired, too.”
James went down with around four minutes left to play, having just converted a layup that cut the Spurs lead to 94-92. Then Green hit a three-pointer—his third in 77 seconds—and San Antonio quickly pulled away. The Spurs closed the game with a 16-3 run, all with James off the court.
Under heavy air and weighty expectations, the Spurs found a rhythm. They converted a remarkable 14 of 16 field-goal attempts in the final quarter. Green, who was 0-of-5 through three periods, made all four of his shots in the fourth. Manu Ginobili dished out six assists in that final period, his game impervious to the heat and the Heat.
“Felt like in Europe,” said Tony Parker, the Spurs’ French point guard, who finished with 19 points. “Felt like I was playing in the European Championship. We never have AC in Europe, so it didn’t bother me at all.”
Ginobili, another veteran of the European leagues, also cheerfully shrugged off the issue.
“It’s a little different,” Ginobili said, adding, “We were sweating more in the locker room (at halftime) than on the court.”
They were sweating in the stands, too, and in aisles and the concession lines and the luxury suites. Fans seemed to take it all in stride, even as everyone wondered what, exactly, had gone wrong.
No information was provided in the arena until the end of the third quarter, when the public-address announcer read a statement indicating “an electrical failure” had knocked out the air conditioning system.
“We apologize for any inconvenience,” the announcer said. He was met with a chorus of boos.
For longtime veterans, the atmosphere evoked memories of an earlier era, a different NBA. Thorn mentioned the old Boston Garden and Chicago Stadium, both of which could feel like saunas on a sticky spring night.
“It reminded me of my Duke days,” said the Heat’s Shane Battier, “because that’s exactly how Cameron Indoor Stadium felt, and that was a huge home-court advantage for us when we were at Duke. So I felt all right.”
Tim Duncan had to reach back a little further, saying, “I don’t think I’ve ever played in anything like this since I left the islands,” a reference to his childhood on St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. “It was pretty bad out there.”
All in all, everyone seemed to keep a good sense of humor about the night’s oddities, although the Heat will surely feel much differently if they lose this series.
For the next two days, the greatest pressure will not be on James or Spoelstra or Dwyane Wade, but on the engineers responsible for getting the AT&T Center’s air conditioning system back online. They have until 7 p.m. local time Sunday.
“Hopefully,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, “we can pay our bills.”
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.