By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
SAN ANTONIO — Inside a house that was hotter than a bowl of South Texas salsa, Danny Green was the frozen margarita.
The San Antonio Spurs’ sharpshooter entered Game 1 of these NBA Finals warming the home nets in the postseason to the tune of nearly 60 percent from beyond the arc. Thursday night, his team trailing the Miami Heat near the halfway point of the final period and legs getting heavier by the ticking second inside the humid, steamy, air-condition-less AT&T Center, Green was so cold — 0-for-5 overall and 0-for-4 from deep — that he might as well have been dropping Spalding-sized chunks of hail.
“That’s what he does, you know? That’s [shooting 3s] his major skill,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “If he’s not going to do that, then we might as well play somebody else. That’s the honest-to-God’s truth. I thought the percentages were with him. So we stuck him back out there and he came through.”
Green suddenly sizzled, nailing back-to-back 3-pointers, then slamming home a dunk in transition before splashing another 3 — 11 of his 13 points in a span of two minutes, 17 seconds of the fourth quarter that turned an 86-84 Spurs deficit into a 97-92 lead that would become a 110-95 victory.
It was all part of a 31-9 blistering to close out a monstrous fourth quarter that left LeBron James badly cramping, defeated by the stifling heat and out of the game for the final 3:59 as the Spurs padded their cushion and seized a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
“I felt it, too, but lucky for me I didn’t cramp up,” Green said of the heat that had 18,581 fans fanning themselves with whatever they could find to initiate even the slightest breeze. “He [James] played a lot of minutes. Everybody was tired, everybody was drained, everybody was sluggish, but I’m proud of my guys that fought through it.”
For three quarters, Green was just fighting it.
Popovich removed him with 9:38 to go in the fourth quarter. Heat forward Chris Bosh had completed a four-point play, fouled by Tim Duncan out beyond the arc, that pushed Miami ahead 86-79.
The Spurs seemed to be the team wilting late in the stifling, stagnating air that had players downing fluids and flopping cold, wet towels over their heads in an attempt to lower body temperatures. For most of the game it was warmer inside the arena than outside because an electrical problem knocked out the arena’s capability to run the air conditioning for the entire game.
After Bosh’s free throw, San Antonio cut it to 86-84 and Popovich, playing the percentages that Green would heat up, subbed him in for Kawhi Leonard with 7:31 to go.
With 6:07 to go, Green banged in his first 3-pointer of the game to make it 88-87 Heat.
“It helps with the next one,” Green said. “When one goes in it helps gain a little rhythm.”
Ray Allen missed a layup at the other end and Green popped in a 25-footer to give San Antonio the lead back, 90-87.
“Once two go in it helps with confidence as well,” Green said, and he told himself: “Just continue to shoot the ball and not think about the previous shot, just stick to the basics, the fundamentals, take my time and hold my follow-through.”
His one-handed slam after a long, arching lead pass from Duncan made it 94-90. Then James’ layup made it 94-92, but once he landed he couldn’t move, paralyzed by a cramp up and down his left leg. He limped up the floor and finally had to be carried by teammates the final few feet to the Heat bench.
Nine seconds later, Green had his third 3-pointer to make it 97-92, and the previously melting Spurs were suddenly in the midst of a scorching 14-for-16 final quarter (87.5 percent) with Green a perfect 4-for-4.
“He kept his head in the game and he was the difference-maker,” Manu Ginobili said.
A year ago, Green’s hand was so hot from deep that he was on his way to likely becoming the Finals MVP had the Spurs closed it out in six games. Of course, they did not, and his hot start drifted into an arctic freeze, 2-for-19 in the final two games.
“No added pressure,” Green said. “I know sometimes I’m going to be open, sometimes I’m not; sometimes it’s going to fall, sometimes it’s not. But one thing throughout the years I’ve learned as a shooter, you can’t think about it too much. Shooters shoot.”
That was Popovich’s philosophy — a belief that the coldest player on the floor, would soon turn as hot as the building.