"When LeBron goes out, obviously you lose the best player in the world," Spurs guard Tony Parker said. "We realized that, so we took advantage of it."
The Spurs buried the Miami Heat beneath a staggering shooting display that began with James on the court and peaked after he left en route to a 110-95 victory in the Finals opener. The Spurs admitted they felt the soaring temperatures in the AT&T Center – caused by an air-conditioning malfunction – but it didn't seem to bother them in the closing minutes.
The Spurs missed only two of their 16 shots in the fourth quarter and made all six of their 3-pointers. They trailed the Heat by as many as seven points early in the quarter, and were down two when James exited for the first time with 7:31 left. James returned three minutes later, but lasted only one possession when he came up limping again after his layup cut the Spurs lead to two.
After James exited for good, the Spurs outscored the Heat 16-3. No one took advantage of James' absence more than Danny Green, who made three 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, none coming when James was on the floor.
"I felt [the heat], too, but lucky for me, I didn't cramp up," Green said.
Green lit up the Heat through the first five games of last year's series, making a Finals-record 25 3-pointers. He struggled in the series' last two games when the Heat rallied past the Spurs to win the championship. He also looked headed for another rough night Thursday when he missed his first four 3-pointers and had just two points – on a pair of free throws – through the first three quarters.
Green's teammates did their best to keep him encouraged.
"I was pushing him hard," Parker said. "I don't know if you saw, but every timeout I was screaming at him and encouraging him. I'm very proud of him because … nobody said it was easy. Last year, he was on fire, but every Finals is different.
"He just kept his composure, kept playing defense, and in the fourth quarter finally he made some big shots. And I told him after the game I was proud of him, and you have to keep playing. You're a young player and you're going to get a lot of ups and downs, and that's what's going to show your character."
The Spurs outscored the Heat 36-17 in the fourth quarter. After committing 22 turnovers in the first three quarters, they had one in the fourth.
"We just kept pounding the rock, like [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich] says, and fought through it," Green said. "Guys were tired. Guys were dragging. We knew eventually they would get tired, too. We weren't the only ones feeling it, so we wanted to continue to push the pace, but play smart. I think we did that."
While Chris Bosh played well with eight points in the fourth quarter, the rest of the Heat made a combined four shots. Miami also attempted just one free throw in the final quarter.
The Spurs routinely use a deep bench, but Popovich admitted to substituting more frequently because of the heat. Marco Belinelli, who didn't play much in the West finals, contributed nine points in a solid 18 minutes in his first Finals game. The Spurs totaled 30 assists, including 11 from Manu Ginobili and eight from Parker.
"If we hold the ball and wait 15 seconds to play a pick-and-roll, it's harder," Ginobili said. "They are more athletic than us and stronger than us and the defense is pretty sharp."
James' departure certainly helped spark the Spurs. Tim Duncan thinks the Spurs' effort also deserves credit.
James "asked out of the game once or twice before [his final exit]," Duncan said. "So we knew he was getting tired out there. I didn't assume it was anything more than him getting tired and getting a blow.
"Him in or out, obviously he's one of the best players in the league. He is going to make a difference. But we played through all that. We started taking care of the ball and that was the difference."