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Ball Don't Lie

LeBron's status, the science of cramping, and more fallout from a wild NBA Finals opener

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie
Miami Heat forward LeBron James answers a question during a news conference on Friday, June 6, 2014, in San Antonio. The team plays Game 2 of the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday
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Miami Heat forward LeBron James answers a question during a news conference on Friday, June 6, 2014, in San Antonio. The team plays Game 2 of the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals was a bizarre contest. The San Antonio Spurs won the opener at home with a dominant fourth quarter, but it came amidst the controversy of broken air conditioning at the AT&T Center and game-changing cramping from Miami Heat superstar LeBron James. Friday has been full of follow-ups and updates to the fallout from the game, and we collect them in this post.

What's up with LeBron James? The King's cramps have been the major story of Game 1, both for his longtime critics and those more inclined to see a generationally fantastic player's struggles as a function of factors more complicated than the desire to win. The good news, for now, is that James appears to be fine after an intense rehydration effort. Yahoo's own Marc Spears reported that James took several bags of intravenous fluids after the game, leading to a sleepless night full of bathroom breaks along with the end of his cramps.

To James, his cramps were a product of the substandard conditions, because his typical hydration and nutrition plans are based on a decided lack of electrical failures. Regardless, it's a safe bet that viewers will be checking for signs of fatigue for the rest of this series. When a superstar has one thing go wrong, it tends to be a point of criticism for the foreseeable future.

Is Gatorade still trolling LeBron on Twitter? Thankfully, the electrolyte giant apologized for Thursday night's series of tweets mocking James for sitting out the final minutes of Game 1. However, LeBron didn't seem particularly open to acknowledging their contrition, instead referring to Gatorade as "that drink group" as he explained that he was not concerned and was altogether more focused on winning Game 2. The backstory here is that LeBron has sponsored Powerade for his entire professional career. Yet Gatorade is an NBA sponsor — their apology refers to their continued support of the Miami Heat — and provides potables to the Heat bench during games.

They should also probably watch what they say in the future, because it turns out that James does drink Gatorade during games. From Darren Rovell for ESPN.com:

While Gatorade took shots at Powerade, whose current tagline using James is "Got what it takes to keep up?," the truth is James actually drinks Gatorade on the bench. He takes the label off and uses blank white towels that don't have the Gatorade logo on them so as not to overtly endorse his competitor.

In other words, Gatorade trolled LeBron for not drinking their product when he was in fact drinking it, which means that their claims to its effectiveness were unfounded in this particular case. Guys, I'm starting to think that advertisements aren't always accurate.

But why would LeBron be the only person to cramp? This question is difficult to answer. At ProBasketball Talk, Dan Feldman spoke with a doctor who claims that LeBron essentially suffered from bad luck connected to the fact that he is used to playing in certain conditions and very quickly had to adjust to 90-degree temperatures.

However, Greg Howard of Deadspin paints a more complicated picture in which hydration plays a relatively small part (note: this article's headline includes a curse word). Drawing from several studies on cramping, Howard explains that James was at special risk for cramping. It's a fascinating article in full, but here a few conclusions if you're pressed for time:

As with the earlier bit about all of your muscles losing electrolytes equally, the key here is that the muscles most likely to cramp are the ones that are active. Further, they are generally ones that cross two joints (like the calf, between the ankle and knee) because the two joints together shorten the muscle, exacerbating the issue of the contraction.

The takeaway here, however, is that fatigue seems simply to cause cramps, without regard for hydration or Gatorade's secret sauce or preparation or anything other than your muscle being tired. Which leads us to LeBron, specifically, and how a very hot gym might affect him differently than others. [...]

LeBron James, you might have noticed, is not the size of a tiny marathoner. He is quite large, and compared with people his size (he's listed at 6-foot-8) he runs more and harder and faster than anyone. And if you're bumping up against that temperature barrier in a 90-degree gym, and not dissipating heat well, and pushing past that built-in physical limit, you will suffer breakdowns, possibly like the misfiring of the alpha motor neuron, and cramps.

Howard goes on to suggest that the apparent hydration-solves-cramping myth persists because various companies, including Gatorade, have an overwhelming financial interest in convincing athletes and exercisers that they need to ingest as much of the product as they can take to fend off cramping. Researchers at the company-funded Gatorade Sports Science Institute pushed back against these claims, and the anti-Gatorade scientists effectively said that they wouldn't argue with anyone whose funding is dependent on pleasing people who are more concerned with money than with good science.

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San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker arrives for a press conference during practice on Friday, June 6, 2014, in San Antonio. The team plays Game 2 of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat on Sunday. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker arrives for a press conference during practice on Friday, June 6, 2014, in …

Science schmience. Why did LeBron seem to suffer so much more than everyone else in the game? The cramps garnered most of the headlines and attention in Game 1, and many players, including Tony Parker and Ray Allen, said they weren't especially bothered. However, the scene itself suggests that things actually were very uncomfortable, at least after the game. Matt Moore of Eye on Basketball has more:

But despite Bosh and Allen's defiance, the Heat locker room was a sauna after the game. James Jones couldn't take how hot it was, electing to dress in the hallway instead of the sweaty mass of reporters and players. Bosh showered twice after the game. Greg Oden sat with a giant ice pack on top of his head to cool down.

The Spurs' locker room was similarly chaotic, as the PR staffs split the players into locker rooms and a separate mini-podium in the adjoining room to keep the heat down. (Note: It did not work. It was still sweltering.) And while Danny Green said he'd never seen anything like Game 1, and that the players definitely "felt it," the Spurs as a whole seemed nonplussed.

It's also possible that the players who didn't complain were simply trying to stay confident and tough after an unfortunate experience. On Friday, Chris Bosh said that Game 1 was "probably the hardest game" of his NBA career.

Will this air conditioning debacle happen again? The Spurs say the AC is fixed, so it better not. If the story isn't weird enough for you already, it might interest you to learn that the Spurs' official air conditioning sponsor does not run their in-arena AC.

Has anything like this ever happened before? In a sense, yes, because NBA games of yore were often played in arenas with poor conditions. In June 1984, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers played Game 5 of the NBA Finals at Boston Garden during a terrible heat wave that caused 97-degree temperatures inside the arena. Larry Bird dominated with 34 points on 15-of-20 shooting and 17 boards, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had to take air through an oxygen mask and referee Hugh Evans had to quit at halftime. There were no air conditioning issues in the arena, though.

It's also worth noting that Michael Jordan, flawless hero of sports, asked out of several minutes of Game 4 of the 1997 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz with complaints of stomach cramps after a Bulls assistant mistakenly replaced the team's Gatorade with GatorLode, a drink meant to build carbs. Yet that game — a 78-73 Jazz win — is usually not remembered as a Jordan failure because he followed it up with the famous "Flu Game" the next time out.

How did the Spurs and Heat adjust on Friday? Neither team ran through an on-court practice, instead focusing on tape review to improve their defenses. Such a decision is not unheard of at this point in the season, when players need all the rest they can get, but it figures that the adverse conditions of Game 1 had something to do with the move to keep players off the court.

Enough talk about the temperature. What about the basketball? If you're more interested in learning about what the Spurs did to win, considering reading up on the terrific play of reserve forward Boris Diaw. From James Herbert of Eye on Basketball:

Popovich played Diaw with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Duncan together for eight minutes, and in that span they made 11 of their 13 field goal attempts. In the 26 minutes that Diaw played alongside Ginobili, San Antonio had 21 assists on 27 field goals and outscored Miami by 36 points. The two of them combined for 17 assists in the game, and their willingness to keep the ball moving is why the Spurs' offense is so beautiful. Other teams just don't have shooting guards and power forwards who pass like they do.

Diaw had 71 touches and passed the ball 63 times on Thursday, per SportVU, an absurd figure. Tony Parker is the only one on either team who had a higher total, with 73 passes on 97 touches. Whether he starts or not, that should tell you something about his role in San Antonio's system. He can change games without scoring, and he is essential to the Spurs' success.

On the other hand, its notable that many of Diaw's minutes overlapped with LeBron's cramping fit. Sometimes, the buzzy story about off-court issues is the biggest factor in the basketball game, too.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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