Sure, LeBron James' absence on account of cramps for much of the fourth quarter hurt the Heat on both ends. But can it account completely for San Antonio's scorching-hot performance in the frame, or the lackadaisical defensive effort on Miami's part that allowed it?
Yeah, just like The Mountain "broke down" the head of...nope, not going to spoil it.
The Spurs hit 14 of the 16 shots they took during the final 12 minutes—an NBA Finals record for a quarter—including all six of their three-point shots therein. That scintillating stretch pushed San Antonio's field-goal percentage on the evening to .588, the sixth-best mark ever recorded in a Finals game, according to Basketball Reference.
Just behind the Spurs' 60 percent performance against the Heat in Game 5 of last year's championship series.
In truth, the connection between the Spurs' skyrocketing offense, the Heat's subpar performance on both ends and James' painful squirming on the sideline was beyond coincidental. San Antonio outscored Miami 26-9 after James exited the game with 7:31 left on the clock. He returned three minutes later, just long enough to drive past Boris Diaw for a layup before requiring his teammates to carry him off the court.
"After I came out of the game, they kinda took off," James said, via Bleacher Report.
Added Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, "It was an explosion at that point."
The signs of that combustion were evident well before James started signaling for substitutions. By the time the second half was underway, James' fatigue had drained him of much of his signature speed, strength and athleticism—and the determined drives to the basket that come with them.
Instead, he settled for jump shots. Of his eight attempts after halftime, six were launched from outside the paint. Two of those, both 19-footers, came on back-to-back possessions just before James asked out.
If James isn't busy sweating out his superpowers, do the Heat score just 17 points in the fourth quarter, after piling up a combined 58 points between the second and third frames? And if James isn't drained by the lack of cool air at the AT&T Center, does Miami surrender 36 points to San Antonio during that very same period?
The latter of those questions is more difficult to answer, since the impact of an individual on a team's defense is more difficult to suss out. James can't be held solely responsible for Danny Green breaking out of his slump (11 points on 4-of-4 shooting in the fourth quarter) since checking "IcyHot" wasn't his charge, per se.
But evaluating James' hiatus in this way ignores the extent to which he's entangled with every aspect of what the Heat do from baseline to baseline, and vice versa. Simply put, he's Miami's best defender, best scorer, best rebounder, best ball-handler and so on. His physical gifts and mental acuity for the game afford the Heat some margin for error against a superb Spurs squad where otherwise there would be none. Without him, everyone else has to work harder just to squeeze the same effect out of a given possession or chunk of time.
That's a tall order under any circumstances against a team as good as San Antonio—even more so when his teammates are exhausted, too.
Not that the Heat would cop to it or use it as an excuse, wrote Bleacher Report's Skolnick:
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.
Statistically speaking, the time James spent on the sideline was the difference in the game. According to FiveThirtyEight.com's Ian Levy, the Spurs outscored the Heat by 15 points in the 15 minutes James didn't play, with the two teams playing each other to a draw in the other 33 minutes. In the second half alone, Miami was 11 points better than San Antonio with James on the court, as opposed to 21 points worse without him, per ESPN.
That may well prove to be the difference in Game 2, as well. The temperature in the arena shouldn't be an issue on Sunday. According to ESPN.com's Royce Young, the A/C is back online in the Alamo City.
"I want the AC to come back, I want to play the real Miami Heat, the two-time champs, with LeBron back," Tony Parker said on Friday, via ESPN. "I hope it's not bad. And I hope he's going to be 100 percent on Sunday. Because as a competitor you want to play against the best, and that's how I feel."
Parker and the Spurs had better be careful what they wish for. More comfortable climes may be all James and the Heat need to get their operation up and running again at San Antonio's expense.
Then again, this wasn't the first time the Spurs had torched the Heat's scrambling defense in an all-important quarter. San Antonio outscored Miami in each of the two fourth quarters these teams played during the regular season: 30-22 in their first meeting, a 113-101 Heat win on South Beach; and 29-13 in their second, a 111-87 blowout in favor of the Spurs.
The last period was of particular importance in last year's Finals, as well. The team that won the fourth quarter won six out of the seven games.
The lone exception? Game 5, when Miami narrowly edged San Antonio in the final battle, 29-27, but lost the "war," 114-104.
Finishing strong is always of the utmost importance in the NBA, but especially in the Finals—and especially between these two powerhouses. The Heat, then, can't afford to flunk the fourth quarter going forward to the extent that they did in Game 1. They can't afford to see Dwyane Wade convert just one of his four shots from the field or Ray Allen go scoreless, as was the case down the stretch on Thursday.
Not with a 1-0 series deficit staring them in their faces. Not if they want to round out this chapter of their remarkable run with a three-peat celebration—and make team president Pat Riley a little bit wealthier in the process.
With the A/C working again and James' cramps subsiding, that might not be such a problem for Miami.
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