Cramp-free and carefree, LeBron helps Heat even Finals
SAN ANTONIO -- LeBron James ended his Sunday much like he began it: trying to remain calm with three people surrounding him.
At 8 a.m. on the morning of Game 2, James found himself in a small yoga class at the Heat's hotel resort, seeking a little body comfort after a Game 1 marred by painful leg cramps, and maybe some peace of mind during another Finals circus. Some 14 hours later, James probed San Antonio's defense, resetting the action before attacking to his left from the top of the key. A Mario Chalmers screen helped give him the edge, and James didn't hesitate, barreling to the elbow with the Spurs leading 93-92, with a little more than a minute to play, and with the shot clock winding down.
Manu Ginobili reached in from the angle to distract James, Kawhi Leonard closed on James from behind, and Tim Duncan sucked in to deter James from attacking the rim. The three Spurs formed a perfect triangle with James in the center, and the game on the line. Credit the yoga, or credit the career spent handling the ball in similar situations, or credit the mind geared towards calculating the highest-percentage decision, or credit them all. Whichever explanation you prefer, James handled the extra attention with ease, sending a two-handed pass between Duncan and Leonard to a wide-open Chris Bosh in the corner. In rhythm, Bosh swished home the three-pointer to put Miami up for good.
"[James] is the most unselfish player I've ever played with," Bosh said afterward.
The Heat would go on to defeat the Spurs 98-96 to take Game 2 and even an increasingly entertaining Finals at one game apiece.
In between the yoga mats and that game-winning pass, those relaxed and aware bookends to his day, James pressed, and then looked possessed.
Although he certainly moved freely in his first action since the muscles in his left leg locked up on Thursday, he was oddly out of sync to start. James had just two points (on four shots) and three turnovers in the first quarter. He looked caught off guard by San Antonio's defense at times, he tried to squeeze passes into nonexistent windows, and he couldn't finish a few of the difficult plays around the basket that he usually makes look routine.
That slow start would become a distant memory in the third quarter, as James found his jumper and subsequently decided to enter takeover mode. He scored eight points in less than a minute midway through the period, thanks to a pair of three-pointers. With no external conditions to worry about or limit him, James could focus his attention on calling for the ball, isolating against his defender, and knocking down his impossible-to-defend shots. He was pulling up from further out and more quickly than normal, glancing at a crowd that jeered him all night after knocking down a deep jumper. One year ago, the Spurs flummoxed James by daring him to shoot from outside; here, they covered him as best they could, with nothing to show for it.
"You can double him if you want," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said flatly, when asked if perhaps extra pressure could have slowed down James' onslaught. "He's a pretty good player. I'm going to guess that he's going to find the open man."
James scored 14 third-quarter points on his way to finishing with a game-high 35 (on 14-for-22 shooting) and 10 rebounds, and he pulled Miami back into a game that it had trailed by as many as 11 points in the first half. But it was his decision to find the open man -- Bosh -- that wound up being the game-deciding one, his smooth shift from attack-minded scorer to pass-first distributor that broke San Antonio for good.
"Even if he's hot, he'll still hit you if you're wide open," Bosh said, after posting 18 points (on 6-for-11 shooting) and three rebounds. "That's what makes this team special. [Our] best player is willing to sacrifice a good shot for a great shot."
The James-to-Bosh connection recalled a similar sequence in Miami's Game 5 loss to Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals. On that play, James found Bosh wide open in the right corner, only Bosh's attempted rimmed off, forcing a Game 6. James has drawn some heat for passing in these late-game situations over the years, although the volume and frequency of the attacks has lessened significantly now that the Heat's two championships have validated James' team-first philosophical approach. Watching these similar plays unfold, in two important games over such a short period of time, offers a unique glimpse at the mathematical calculations James is making.
"It's the theater of the absurd when you're dealing with what plays he makes at the end of the game," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, referring to criticism of James' decision to pass rather than attack the basket against Indiana. "He makes the right basketball play. We trust him to make the right plays. We know the process is right."
There wasn't a second thought to give Bosh his second chance, James explained, and there shouldn't have been. Bosh might not have Ray Allen's well-earned reputation, but he was shooting an excellent 43.1 percent from deep during the playoffs entering Sunday, and he has hit a number of clutch threes -- including game-winners against the Spurs and Blazers -- in recent years.
"When the ball is in my hands, I'm going to make the right play," James explained. "[My teammates] know when I [have] the ball, I'm going to make the right play. Doesn't mean it's going to go in. Doesn't mean it's going to result in a win, but they believe in my ability to do that. [Bosh] had just missed one, got a great look. I draw two [defenders] and his man leave him again, I went right back to him and he knocked it down."
If Game 1 will be remembered as a potential classic spoiled by the air conditioning fiasco, Game 2 will go down as a back and forth and back again classic that left its viewers spoiled. In the fourth quarter alone, five different players -- Rashard Lewis, Danny Green, James, Tony Parker, and Bosh -- hit go-ahead three-pointers.
The Spurs will lament this game for two reasons. First, their stagnation on offense and failure to get back defensively in transition combined to squander a first-half lead. Second, because their inability to do the little things -- make free throws, finish around the hoop, keep moving the ball -- caught up with them down the stretch.
If San Antonio could have a single minute to do over it would likely choose the stretch from six to seven minutes remaining in regulation. After taking a flagrant elbow to the ribs from Mario Chalmers, Parker missed a pair of free throws, marring a night in which he led the Spurs with 21 points (on 8-for-15 shooting) and seven assists. On the ensuing possession, Duncan, who finished with 18 points (on 7-for-14 shooting) and 15 rebounds, also missed back-to-back free throws. James didn't hesitate in the face of such uncharacteristic unreliability, burying his third three-pointer of the game to complete a seven-point swing. Instead of holding a six-point lead, the Spurs -- who were the league's fourth-best foul shooting team this season -- were trailing by one.
Parker would respond with a clutch three before James and Bosh took over down the stretch, and the Spurs were therefore reluctant to point to the missed free throws as the sole reason they lost Game 2. Even so, this was the stretch in which their firm control of the contest eluded them, in which their best shot at taking a strong 2-0 series lead died. They would finish just 12-for-20 from the stripe on the night, marking their fifth-worst free-throw shooting performance since the 2013-14 season began. What a time for those numbers.
The free throws were just one symptom of their off night, rather than the disease. San Antonio managed only 18 points in the final period and posted just 17 points in a disjointed second quarter; the Spurs' 96 points were the fewest they had managed at home since April 23, a span of six-plus weeks.
Repeating that his team needs to play "perfect" to keep up with the Heat when No. 6 has it going, Popovich prescribed better offensive flow as his top priority heading into Game 3.
"You move [the ball] or you die," Popovich said, before exiting the podium and beginning the trip to South Beach.
One chuckles at the mental image of a huffy Popovich extolling such grim words at a sunrise yoga session. Who else would pitch a message of sharing in such an abrupt, dark manner? But, a clear-minded, cramp-free James perfectly represents the flip side of the same coin: he moved the ball to Bosh, and the Heat live on