SAN ANTONIO – LeBron James probably has had 140 or so “podium games” in his NBA playoff career (he’s played 154). And then, finally, in Game 1 of The 2014 Finals at the AT&T Center Thursday he had …
A sodium game.
Dehydration from an overheated arena with a broken-down air conditioning system led to severe cramping for the Miami Heat superstar, and the cramping sent James to the bench at pivotal moments in the fourth quarter, a quarter won by the San Antonio Spurs 36-17 as they grabbed a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven championship round.
Grabbed it and were lucky not to have it squirt from their hands, from the perspiration.
“As the game started, I was like, ‘Wow, it feels nice and warm in here. I’m feeling good,’ ” said Miami guard Ray Allen, the leanest and probably best-conditioned player on the floor. “Then when we called the first timeout, [Dwyane] Wade was drenched. And LeBron said, ‘He looks like he played the whole game already.’ ”
Playing the whole game was a problem, particularly for James. Temperatures in the building, high at tipoff, only rose with a sold-out crowd of 18,581, the bright lights of network TV coverage and the intensity on the court.
James said he downed a bunch of fluids at halftime and even changed his uniform “to get the sweat up off of you.” Both the Miami and San Antonio trainers gave their players ice bags and cold towels on their respective benches. It was managed as well as it could be, until the mercury rose further and adrenaline mattered less than electrolytes.
“I got all the fluids I need to get,” James said after getting more delivered intravenously in the postgame locker room. “I do my normal routine I’ve done and it was inevitable for me. … I lost all the fluids that I was putting in in the last couple of days out there on the floor.”
The Spurs’ Tim Duncan had noticed James subbing out a couple of times in the second half and assumed he was tired, same as the rest of them. Only it was worse than that. The Heat star had battled cramps before – he had famously returned from a bout with them in Game 4 the 2012 Finals against Oklahoma City to hit a crucial shot – and he was seizing up Thursday night like never before.
The worst of it came deep into the final quarter after James subbed back in with 4:33 left. He drove hard to the rim for a layup and kept going into the baseline area, pulling up, testing his leg and finally just stopping. Was it an ankle injury? Nope, more like his left hamstring and calf muscles caught in a vise grip. He was, in that instant as the Spurs pushed the ball toward the other end, helpless. He had to be hurriedly half-carried to the bench, lest the Heat get charged with a timeout.
“The best option for me to do was not to move,” he told a pool reporter late Thursday. “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.”
It was not just James’ left leg but, he said, “damn near the whole left side.” Down 94-92 when the cramps stopped James, Miami got outscored 16-3 from over the final four minutes.
To their credit, the Heat didn’t dwell on James’ condition as an excuse for their unraveling. “I was worried about him,” Allen said. “But at that moment, I wasn’t thinking about it as much as what we needed to do. We did let go of the rope a little bit. We gave up stuff defensively and offensively, we didn’t get to our stuff. We had some empty, open possessions we didn’t convert and they did.”
Allowing the other team to shoot 58 percent and turning over the ball 18 times can undercut grumbles about a thermostat.
Still, it was bizarre seeing a Finals opener being decided with James sitting out right in camera range, planted on the bench not by foul trouble but by the body that has been so good to him in this instance betraying him.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra made the decision to shut him down for the night. “Look, at one point he was getting up with 3½ minutes to go,” Spoelstra said, “and I looked at him and said, ‘Don’t even think about it. You can’t even move at this point.’ ” Instead, James was dispatched to the locker room and, minutes later, the Heat were simply dispatched.
Afterward, a few especially creative conspiracy theorists tried to float the notion that the Spurs somehow arranged for the AC breakdown, calculating James’ propensity for cramps. But Rod Thorn, NBA president of basketball operations, considered the circumstances little more than another hot game, like a bunch of other hot playoff games through the years.
“What you are looking for is to make sure that the conditions on the court are fine, and in this case there was no one slipping,” Thorn said. “Once the game starts, it’s in the hands of the referees. Had the referees felt at any time – or I had felt at any time, I was sitting the second row midcourt – that the game should not be continued, then they would have come over and said something to me. Never did.”
Both coaches used nine players, but ran them in and out more like hockey shifts.
“Players were pretty dead,” San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich said. “So we tried to get guys in and out a little bit more than we usually do. Kind of screws up the rhythm but it was mighty hot out there.”
Said Spoelstra: “We’re used to having the hotter arena at this time of year.”
Unpleasant as the temperature in the building was, most of the players had experience performing in similar conditions. Heat forward Shane Battier likened it to his time at Duke, playing in that campus’ famous Cameron Indoor Stadium in its pre-air conditioned days. “It was a huge, huge, homecourt advantage. Ten thousand people on you, no AC – it brought me back,” Battier said.
Allen and James flashed back to their high school gym. San Antonio point guard Tony Parker said: “We never have AC in Europe, so it didn’t bother me at all.”
Thorn said the NBA believes “very strongly” that the air conditioning issue will be fixed by Game 2. Both the AT&T Center and James have until Sunday evening to get right.
“I need it, I need it,” the Heat star said, adding that he and the training staff would start replenishing his fluids Thursday night.
Allen, a fitness maven, offered a more detailed recovery plan for his teammate. “Obviously it starts the day before, coming into the game, just refueling and resting,” the veteran guard said. “But when you’re out there, you’ve got to get that salt back into your body. You’re dispensing so much of it. For him, we’ve got to find a way to keep getting Gatorade into him while he’s on the bench, just to make sure he stays hydrated.”
Technically, James’ endorsement deal is with Powerade. But it wasn’t a night to remember for the sports drink folks, either.