Both teams sweated through this thrilling curtain-raiser but at the end the Miami Heat’s perspiration may have owed something to anxiety as well as to the arena’s broken air-conditioning.
Gesturing to the bench and clearly uncomfortable, exited late on – possibly injured, perhaps simply overcooked – and when their talisman left, Miami’s prospects of victory went with him. The Spurs outscored the Heat 36-17 in the final quarter, putting a silky gloss on the scoreline that belied just how close this contest was.
"Don't know what happened to LeBron," Spurs power forward Tim Duncan told ESPN afterwards. "But I think all of us were feeling the heat and all of us are a little dehydrated."
The Heat, seeking their third successive championship and the burnishing of James’s already brilliant career, are in their fourth finals in a row. For the Spurs, the time is now –again. They were already supposed to be too old when they fell to the Heat 12 months ago: heavily dependent on Duncan (now 38), Manu Ginobili (36) and Tony Parker (32). When Duncan won his first title, the world was starting to fret about the millennium bug.
The Spurs owned the best regular-season record in the , handing them home court advantage in a series that has reverted to a 2-2-1-1-1 format from the previous 2-3-2 home and away arrangement.
It was a record no doubt fuelled by vivid dreams of revenge.
“We’re happy it’s the Heat again. We’ve got that bad taste in our mouths still,” Duncan said on TNT straight after the Spurs sealed their passage to the finals with an overtime win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in game six of the Western Conference final.
“They don’t like us,” James opined to reporters earlier this week. The scent of rancour served well as soap-operatic preview material, but in truth both teams respect each other's considerable ability, and as a Texan motivational tool, the bare facts of last year’s finals speak far louder than soundbites.
San Antonio were five points ahead with 28 seconds left in game six, only for the Heat to level the score on a three-pointer from Ray Allen with 5.2 seconds remaining. Miami won in overtime then dominated back in Florida to lift the trophy and shower in ticker-tape.
Parker’s stunning, stumbling bank shot with 5.2 seconds left was the marquee moment of last year’s opening game, won by the Spurs 92-88. The French guard, back from a sore left ankle that caused him to sit out the second half of the victory over Oklahoma, was at his balletic best early on, twirling and spinning like a majorette in a centrifuge.
But the first quarter on Thursday night belonged to Ginobili – patchy enough in 2013 to generate talk of retirement –who scored nine of his team’s 26 points as they surged to a six-point lead. The visitors reduced the deficit by only one point in a wildly-entertaining second period in which Duncan, Parker and Ginobili were again at the core of everything good about their team’s offense.
If San Antonio were the more coherent and consistent, Miami kept close with rifled three-pointers and robust runs into the paint from James, Chris Bosh, Allen and Dwyane Wade.
The staff tasked with mopping sweat off the court had to work almost as hard as the players, since an air-conditioning fault caused by an electrical failure meant it felt nearly as hot and humid inside the arena as it was outside in the always-sticky Texas summer.
Perhaps the conditions initially aided the younger legs of Miami’s Big Three, as the Heat eroded San Antonio’s advantage in the third period, holding a two-point lead with 2.13 on the clock, which was doubled to leave a score of 78-74 as the final quarter began. The Spurs’ play became less precise, and turnovers were a growing problem.
Miami threatened to rack up an unassailable lead, but two Danny Green three-pointers inside the final six minutes put the Spurs two points to the good and sent the decibel levels in the stands soaring as high as the temperature. Fans bellowed “Beat The Heat!”, turning a summertime slogan into a mission statement and a double-entendre.
The Spurs entered the night 10-0 when leading at half-time in this postseason, according to ESPN. Their cause was turbo-boosted when James limped to the sidelines and out of the game with apparent leg cramps. Another Green three-pointer seconds later underlined the momentum shift, and suddenly the Spurs led by seven, then 10. In the end, the scoreboard signalled a blowout.
As San Antonio bid to clean out the sour taste of 2013, this was a succulent enough appetiser, and a strong indicator that for the neutral, this will be a series as compelling and close as last year’s –assuming James recovers.
Over to Miami’s medical staff and the AT&T Center’s electricians: game two is here on Sunday.