On a night when temperatures inside the AT&T Center climbed to over 90 degrees due to an air conditioner malfunction, it was the San Antonio Spurs bench that came to the rescue during Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
While the starting units for Miami and San Antonio were fairly evenly matched, the strength of San Antonio’s bench was one of the main factors that had caused many experts to give the Spurs a slight edge heading into the 2014 NBA Finals.
And that edge possessed by San Antonio became infinitely more valuable on a night when each team’s stars were gasping for air and dropping to the floor with leg cramps in what amounted to a game of basketball played in desert-like conditions.
Aside from Tony Parker, who was on the floor for over 36 minutes during Game 1, and Tim Duncan, who was on the floor for 33 minutes, the rest of San Antonio’s starting five played significantly fewer minutes than their Miami counterparts.
Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green each played less than 28 minutes during Game 1, which appeared to greatly contribute to the Spurs' ability to mount a 31-9 run to close out the game. Another contributing factor was Green’s ability to light up the Heat down the stretch while James was on the bench with leg cramps and Wade and Bosh were gasping for air in uniforms that had turned to more of a maroon color due to their profuse perspiration.
Green scored 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting during the fourth quarter, while Leonard hit a three-pointer to put the Spurs up by seven with just under two minutes left to play in the game. Leonard then added another three with 17 seconds left in the game to extend San Antonio’s lead to 15.
"It was the whole left leg, damn near the whole left side," James said of the cramps that forced him to the bench halfway through the fourth quarter of Game 1, as reported by Royce Young of ESPN.com. "I was losing a lot [of fluids] throughout the game. It was extremely hot in the building, you know, both teams, fans, everybody could feel it.”
While players such as Leonard, Splitter and Green were not in the game at various points throughout the first three quarters, their substitutes performed significantly better than Miami’s bench.
Each team played four bench players during Game 1. And while the Heat’s starting five were outscored by the Spurs' starters by just a single point, even with James on the bench for most of the final seven minutes of the game, the Spurs bench outscored the Heat bench by a score of 34 to 20.
“Players were pretty dead. So we tried to get guys in and out a little bit more than we usually do,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after the game, as reported by ASAP Sports.
While the air conditioner malfunction was of course a unique situation that played right into the Spurs’ strengths, it also highlighted an issue that the Heat will have to deal with during the 2014 NBA finals that they did not have to contend with last year—a stronger, healthier and more dynamic Spurs bench.
The Spurs bench averaged 8.4 more points per game during the 2013-2014 regular season than it did during the 2012-2013 regular season.
The Spurs bench also averaged nearly 15 points more per game during the 2013-2014 regular season than the Miami bench.
Throughout the 2014 NBA playoffs, the Spurs bench has continued to produce, averaging 15.6 points more per game than the Miami bench.
This presents a major challenge for Miami during a seven-game series where instances of foul trouble, fatigue and even injuries will inevitably arise.
Just look at what occurred during Game 1.
Mario Chalmers, who averaged nearly 10 points per game during the regular season, played only 17 minutes during Game 1 due to foul trouble. Chalmer’s replacement, Norris Cole, managed just two points on 1-of-4 shooting from the field during 29 minutes of play.
And when James went down halfway through the fourth quarter, a Spurs team that appeared to have a bit more spring in its step due to its ability to rest its starters earlier in the game was able to finish off the Heat with a 31-9 run.
"They're trying to smoke us out of here," James could be heard telling his teammates during ABC’s coverage of Game 1.
While James was clearly referring to the temperature in the building, by the end of this series, that same line may apply to a Spurs bench that will essentially force Miami’s starting five, and particularly its “Big Three,” to perform better and play significantly more minutes than they did during the 2013 NBA Finals if they are to have any chance at going home with a third consecutive title.