SAN ANTONIO -- The Spurs didn't have much of an answer for LeBron James all night, but their building was right there to bail them out in the clutch.
The NBA witnessed its version of the Super Bowl XLVII power outage on Thursday, as the Texas heat and a broken air conditioning system at the AT&T Center combined to double-team James out of the game with leg cramps, a twist of fate slash public relations nightmare that played a central role in swinging the result in San Antonio's favor.
A tightly-contested Game 1 of a highly anticipated Finals rematch got off to this false start, with the league's biggest star coming up lame with just four minutes remaining in regulation. What was a two-point game at the time of James' injury ballooned quickly into a 110-95 Spurs victory.
San Antonio's NBA-record eighth straight home playoff victory by 15-plus points was unlike any of the previous seven, and tarnished by a controversy unlike any seen in recent Finals history. James has dealt with cramps before, most notably during the Heat's 2012 Finals victory over the Thunder, but he's never been stuck watching from the sidelines as his teammates lost a game of this magnitude.
The impact of his departure couldn't have been clearer. James first exited with 7:31 remaining in the fourth quarter, and San Antonio responded with a 10-4 run. James then returned to the game with 4:33 remaining, taking the ball hard to the rack for a quick lay-up. As play continued the other way, James immediately called for help to the Heat's bench, waving in pain as he wobbled on his right leg.
In a matter of seconds, James went from being the game's high scorer to the contest's highest-profile observer, as he slowly limped his way to the bench with help from his teammates. He departed with a game-high 25 points (on 9-for-17 shooting), six rebounds, three assists and three steals in 33 minutes.
Only twice has James played fewer minutes during the postseason: when he dealt with foul trouble against the Pacers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals and when he sat our during garbage time of Miami's blowout win over Indiana in Game 6. The All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive Second Team forward asked to be reinserted into the game shortly after he left for the final time, only to have the idea rejected by coach Erik Spoelstra.
"I looked at him and said, 'Don't even think about it. You can't even move at this point,'" Spoelstra said.
As James sat, San Antonio closed on a 16-3 run in the game's final four minutes to take a 1-0 series lead and maintain their home-court advantage.
"It sucks at this point in time in the season," James told a pool reporter, after missing his usual post-game press conference to receive an IV. "After I came out of the game, they kinda took of. It was frustrating sitting out and not being able to help our team. ... It's frustration and anger."
All told, the Spurs outscored the Heat 26-7 while James was forced to watch a rare chance at a road victory in San Antonio slip away. Danny Green, who had been quiet all night and entered the fourth quarter with just two points, hit three three-posters and threw down a poster dunk as James sat, finishing with 13 points and the knockout blows.
"It felt like a punch in the gut when you see your leader limping like that back to the bench," Spoelstra said of the Spurs' strong closing effort. "It was an explosion at that point."
The high temperature in San Antonio was 91 degrees on Thursday, and the outside temperature still topped 83 degrees after the 8 p.m. local time tip. Inside the building, it was sweltering. Fans, stadium employees and media members sweated through their shirts. Tim Duncan said that "cramps started setting in" for "a couple of different guys." Greg Oden, who didn't play a second, sat at his locker room afterwards, wearing an oversized ice pack on his head like a French beret. During breaks in play, the AT&T Center crowd looked like a flock of crows flying at full speed, with thousands of patrons using black fans to try to keep cool. ABC's Doris Burke reported during the telecast that temperatures on the floor reached as high as 90 degrees.
Reaction to the conditions among players was mixed. Shane Battier said that shooters generally prefer a warmer gym, and he joked that he was used to playing without a breeze, dating back to his Duke days when Cameron Indoor didn't yet have AC. Texas native Chris Bosh said that his Dallas-area high school couldn't afford AC. Patty Mills suggested that the Spurs' international players "knew how to handle the heat" because they grew up overseas.
One thing even the Spurs could agree to: James' departure directly impacted the result.
"LeBron, if he's down there playing [defense], and we've got to stop him on the other end, certainly [that] could have been a different story, there is no question about that," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich acknowledged.
Even for a building that I dubbed "The NBA's most horrific house of horrors" just last week, the scorching temperature represented an entirely new level of uninviting, more harmful even than a large snake in the visitors locker room.
As the arena's public address system attempted to make light of the situation by playing Nelly's "Hot in Herre" and other heat-related songs, the Spurs issued an official apology for the "inconvenience."
Unfortunately for the NBA, high temperatures have been known to cause headaches. Indeed, National Basketball Players Association acting executive director Ron Klempner told Bloomberg News in the hours after Game 1 that the situation was mishandled by the league.
"The playing conditions for tonight's game were completely unacceptable from the opening tip," Klempner said. "In a situation like this, there needs to be more open communication before a decision is made that could potentially place players at risk."
James' description of his pain was, well, excruciating.
"The best option for me was to not move," James said. "I tried and any little step or nudge, it would get worse. It would lock up worse and my muscles spasmed 10 out of 10."
Following the game, NBA president of basketball operations Rod Thorn held a press conference, insisting the conditions were acceptable, pointing out that players weren't slipping on the court.
"It was warm. In live sporting events, sometimes you're going to have things transpire," Thorn said. "Had the referees felt at any time or had I felt at any time ... that the game shouldn't be continued, then they would have come over and said something to me. Never did, [and] I never said anything to them regarding the fact that the game should be canceled."
Thorn said that he believes the air conditioning "will be fixed come Sunday and we will be play under normal conditions." Let's hope so. Adam Silver is set to address the media at a press conference prior to Game 2. Perhaps the first-year commissioner, who has spent the last month in damage control for other reasons, will take the podium in a firefighter's helmet emblazoned with the Jerry West logo.
No matter how the rest of the series plays out, Game 1 will go down as The Cramp Game, a title that lacks all the inspiration of Michael Jordan's Flu Game because the conditions overcame James and not the other way around, and because the conditions overshadowed the rest of the action.
The plan for James going forward is straightforward: replenishing his fluids in advance of Game 2, which he expects to play in. Hopefully for the league's sake, for the sport's sake, for the Heat's sake and, yes, even for the Spurs' sake, both James and the AT&T Center are good to go from here on out. If not, another first-half burst from Manu Ginobili, who scored 16 points and dished 11 assists, could be swept underneath the rug. If not, more vintage post domination from Duncan, who posted 21 points and 10 rebounds, is at risk of being forgotten.
"I'm sure that both teams are going to be happy that we have a couple of days before the next game, and hopefully we can pay our bills," Popovich deadpanned sheepishly.
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