SAN ANTONIO – For all the soaked shirts and discarded sports jackets in the sweltering corridors of the AT&T Center in the late hours of Thursday, Isiah Thomas stayed perfectly coiffed and untouched of perspiration. Twenty-six years ago, these NBA Finals had delivered Thomas' legacy a forever moment on a losing night, a swollen, throbbing ankle leaving him limping across the old Forum floor in one of the most peerless of championship performances ever witnessed.
"I always loved the heat," Thomas was telling an old NBA fan named Jimmy Goldstein. Thomas always did, yes, and the two days between Games 1 and 2 of these Finals promise to become a referendum on LeBron James' own staying power under the threshold of championship pain.
The air conditioning malfunctioned, court conditions sweltered and leg cramps cost James the final minutes of the 110-95 loss to Spurs. Cramps caused searing spasms to shoot through those thick legs and paralyzed him in the telltale minutes of a late collapse. In the late hours now, Thomas had come to give James one more shoulder to lean on, one more player to shuttle him out of harm's way. One more Finals assist for Isiah Thomas, one more perfect pass.
"There is no athlete on the planet who could've played through those cramps," Thomas told Yahoo Sports. "Michael Jordan absolutely couldn't have played through those cramps. I absolutely couldn't have played through those cramps. As an athlete, there's nothing you could do."
Somehow, the system in the AT&T Center malfunctioned, and James paid the steepest price of all. He has a history of cramping, and this inspired conspiracy theorists to suggest this had been a Spurs move out of Red Auerbach's old Celtics playbook. Only, it wasn't. It was an embarrassment, but the NBA believed it was purely accidental and a problem that will be remedied for Game 2 on Sunday.
The coaches, Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra, had to compensate with more frequent substitutions, the trainers providing more hydration on the bench. To Miami's credit, there wasn't one coach or player suggesting they had been duped, that losing James had been anything but bad fortune.
He had gone out of the game with 7½ minutes left, had the trainers working to replenish his fluids and ease the pain on his left side. Three minutes later, James re-entered the game, beat Boris Diaw to the rim on an isolation play for his 25th point and simply stopped under the basket, bent over and raised his hand for Spoelstra to get him out of the game.
"It was the whole left leg, damn near the whole left side," James told a pool reporter.
Heat players hustled to bring James back to the bench, and he watched the Spurs' Danny Green make immense shots in the final moments, delivering the Spurs the Game 1 victory. Looking back, James had tried everything to preserve his body – changing his uniform at halftime, pouring fluids into himself, using ice packs in timeouts – and yet his body gave out in a way that no one else's did on Thursday night.
As the Spurs separated themselves, James began to stand up and to check himself back into the game, and Spoelstra told him, "Don't even think about it. You can't even move."
Across eight consecutive NBA Finals games, the Heat and Spurs have delivered drama and theater, and James has been the cornerstone of it all. As much as anyone, James knows what comes now, the relentless comparisons to those ghosts that forever lurk around him. Michael and Magic, Larry and Isiah. Redemption is forever a game away in these NBA Finals, and now James gets his chance on Sunday to make right those lost, final minutes of Thursday night.
Twenty-six years ago, Isiah Thomas delivered the most unforgettable 25 points ever scored in an NBA quarter, his ankle threatening to crumble under the pressure of the pain and platform. On a Finals night that everyone else was a sweaty, disheveled mess, Thomas looked so unaffected and unmoved in the heat. He hadn't come to condemn this generation's superstar, but give him a comforting nod of understanding.
"There's no way you could play that way," Thomas told Yahoo Sports. "People have to understand that – just no way."
All these years later, Isiah Thomas, a two-time champion, had delivered one more assist in the NBA Finals. For all the impossible pain that superstars had endured in championship moments of truth, the most mesmerizing of all belonged to the old Detroit Pistons great a quarter of a century ago. Thomas' final act on the way out of the AT&T Center, on the way out of Game 1, had been to deliver a defense of James. History had given the game's best player a pass on Thursday night. Yes, Isiah Thomas let LeBron James off.