LeBron James was the target of criticism after a Game 1 NBA Finals loss, but he responded like he always has: on the court.
James had 35 points and 10 rebounds, leading the Miami Heat to a thrilling 98-96 win over the San Antonio Spurs at a cooled-down AT&T Center on Sunday night.
Chris Bosh chipped in 18 points, including a decisive three-pointer in the final minute, as the Heat tied the series at one game apiece.
Most amazing stat in Big 3 era: 16 consecutive playoff series with a road win. 2nd most: 13 straight wins after playoff loss.— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) June 9, 2014
Tim Duncan had yet another postseason double-double (18 points, 15 rebounds) to set another record, and Tony Parker had 21 points and seven assists, but the Spurs couldn't get enough stops down the stretch in the loss.
Tim Duncan: 157th playoff double-double, tying Magic Johnson for most all-time— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 9, 2014
Early on, it looked like the Spurs were going to run away with this one.
James had just two points in the first quarter, while San Antonio was moving the ball with precision, assisting on nine of its first 10 buckets to jump out to a 26-19 lead. Duncan got whatever he wanted on the interior, outscoring the Heat's entire "Big Three" in the first period, per ESPN's Numbers Never Lie:
1st quarter has ended and Duncan has MORE points (11) than LeBron, Bosh & Wade COMBINED (9).— Numbers Never Lie (@ESPN_Numbers) June 9, 2014
The Spurs increased the lead to 11 points at the start of the second quarter and looked ready to blow the game wide open, but James awoke from his slumber. The four-time MVP quickly scored or assisted on 11 points during a 15-3 run to put the Heat back in front.
It was back and forth from there, and the teams entered the locker room tied at 43. James was all over the box score—13 points, seven rebounds, two assists and two steals—but as ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh noted, his impact was even greater than those numbers:
Heat with LeBron on-court: +10, shooting 57.1% (16-28 FG) | LeBron off-court: –10, shooting 1-9 FG. (via @ESPNStatsInfo)— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) June 9, 2014
While much of his early damage came from right around the rim, James torched the Spurs from the perimeter in the third quarter. He knocked down six of his seven shots—all jumpers—and at one point went on an 8-0 run by himself in 51 seconds.
Bleacher Report's Miami Heat beat writer Ethan J. Skolnick put it best:
LeBron's overheating in a good way tonight.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) June 9, 2014
But the Spurs wouldn't go away. Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills each hit a couple of threes, and San Antonio took a one-point lead into the final period.
After a first half that was riddled with turnovers on both sides, the third quarter was an offensive clinic. The teams combined for 69 points and 10 lead changes, and as NBA.com's John Schuhmann added, the sloppy play finally disappeared:
Only 2 combined TOs in the third quarter. 69 combined points on just 43 combined possessions.— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) June 9, 2014
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich outlined his game plan during a TV interview prior to the fourth quarter with ESPN's Doris Burke, via The Boston Globe's Ben Volin:
What a great Popovich answer: "I'd like to see LeBron play poorly."— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) June 9, 2014
That didn't happen, and James continued to do pretty much whatever he wanted, but the Spurs answered every blow with one of their own. Boris Diaw hit a three to tie the game with 4:39 left. Parker drilled one from deep to put the Spurs up one with 2:26 to go.
With every subsequent lead change, it didn't seem to matter who was winning (at least for those outside of San Antonio and Miami), but that the quality of play was steadily rising:
Standing O for Game 2— Andy Glockner (@AndyGlockner) June 9, 2014
EVERYTHING IS EXCITING.— Holly MacKenzie (@stackmack) June 9, 2014
James got the last laugh, though, drawing the defense and finding a wide-open Bosh, who knocked down the corner three with 1:17 to go to give the Heat a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
A weird Game 1 may have had the Heat feeling a bit cheated, but when it comes down to it, they return home with the series tied. Considering how they've looked in Miami this postseason, that's all they could ask for.
The Spurs will undoubtedly bounce back, but when James hits transcendent mode, as he did Sunday, there isn't a lot that anyone can do to slow him down. Popovich is one of the best in the business, though, and he'll have his team ready on Tuesday for Game 3.
Popovich provided some insight after the game as to how that may happen:
Pop: "We didn’t do it as a group. We tried to do it individually and we aren’t good enough to do that."— Quixem Ramirez (@quixem) June 9, 2014
Either way, it's clear we're in for an unforgettable series.