The 1st game of the Finals went to the Spurs in a decidedly unique contest. LeBron James missed almost the entire end of the game due to cramping. The one play under the six minute mark in the 4th quarter that he participated in was a driving layup, after which he never made it back down the floor, standing awkwardly on the baseline while the other nine guys raced to the opposite end.
For anyone who hasn’t experienced the joy of cramps, it’s not an injury. That implies that something has broken. No, a cramp is the body’s response to running out of steam. You can’t move. There’s literally nothing you can do – the muscles will not respond. You don’t get to “fight through it” or any of that b.s. You’re just done. You lay down for a while, you hydrate, you cool off. You don’t return to strenuous physical activity. Not because you don’t want to, or because you’re weak – it’s because you physically cannot.
LeBron’s determination shouldn’t be in question, especially at this point. It may just be fan boredom seeking out a narrative, but seriously – the guy has two rings for a reason. Stop it.
The game itself seemed to turn after James left in the fourth. Prior to that, it had been a relatively even battle. Neither side ever held a convincing lead until the end, and though the lack of air conditioning definitely seemed to affect rotations for both sides, the score wasn’t noticeably altered until James was forced off. Big picture, this is a tough game from which to judge the rest of the series. James is highly unlikely to miss large chunks of crunch time again, and players won’t need to rotate in and out this quickly. However, there were still some notable takeaways.
First, Tony Parker, Dwyane Wade, and Manu Ginobili are all healthy. Parker and Ginobili were both fantastic, picking apart the Heat defense to get the ball inside to Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. Wade may have been even better. He consistently scored inside when given the opportunity. Post-ups were particularly effective for him, and coach Spoelstra should be encouraged to keep feeding him down low.
Another interesting development was the Spurs more or less ignoring new starter Rashard Lewis to pack the paint. Miami made the switch to Lewis for spacing, but if he can’t make the Spurs pay for ignoring him he isn’t providing any value. He will either need to start draining threes or be benched. Miami did not have the chance to really settle on an optimal lineup due to James’ need to sit. Even with him on the floor the Heat weren’t better than San Antonio – his plus minus was even.
For their part, the Spurs started Splitter and Danny Green, but it was clear Gregg Popovich viewed the Parker-Ginobili-Kawhi Leonard–Boris Diaw-Duncan unit as his best group, with Green subbing for Leonard when more shooting was needed on the floor. Some version of that lineup, specifically with Diaw as the second big, will likely take over as the starting lineup at some point, though it may not happen in Game 2. Don’t expect to see Splitter and Duncan play anymore meaningful minutes together the rest of the way.
The Spurs suffered a string of 3rd quarter turnovers, which may actually be a good sign for them. Once some of the starters hit the bench there was a stretch of what seemed like 10 plays in which there was a turnover. The Miami defense definitely played a role in causing the havoc, but San Antonio wasn’t making their usual accurate passes. That stretch was an outlier, and the Heat won’t get the same kind of break the rest of the series. Without the turnovers the Spurs could have easily been leading early in the fourth. Instead it may seem like they were being outplayed prior to LeBron’s exit, which isn’t really true.
Aside from hanging onto the ball in the 4th, Green rediscovering his stroke helped San Antonio take the lead and pull away. Unlike Wade, whose sudden proficiency from deep is sure to regress soon, Green is a proven shooter. His first half performance was lackluster, but he bounced back late in the game. Any hopes Miami had of being able to play off of him are dead.
Here’s hoping the next game is played in the usual air conditioned environment, and that the King’s body doesn’t betray him. The first half featured the kind of extraordinary basketball we’ve come to expect when these two teams meet in meaningful games, and more of that would definitely be welcome. For now though we’ll just have to wait, knowing that the biggest takeaway after one game is simply that the Spurs lead the series 1-0.