SAN ANTONIO – The Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs officially returned to the NBA Finals on Thursday for a repeat performance of their epic seven-game series from a year ago. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were back. Same for Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
They were sweating more than usual, but they were back. The problem: No one, apparently, coaxed the AT&T Center's air conditioning into returning.
Thanks to an electrical failure that shut down the arena's AC, the opener of the 2014 NBA Finals became a war of attrition. With temperatures near the court measuring above 90 degrees, James had to twice head to the bench in the final quarter because he was cramping. The Spurs took that as their cue to surge past the Heat for a 110-95 victory.
Game 2 is Sunday, presumably to be played in a temperature-controlled climate.
"I lost all the fluids that I was putting in in the last couple days out there on the floor," James told a pool reporter after the game. "It sucks not being out there for your team, especially at this point in the season."
After losing Games 6 and 7 in last year's Finals to give the Heat their second consecutive championship, the Spurs worked all season to ensure they had the league's best record and home-court advantage this time. Never could they have imagined the size of that advantage, which will likely go down in NBA lore, alongside Boston Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach allegedly having the hot water turned off for the visiting team's showers. The AT&T Center has its own history: Ginobili once swatted a bat in mid-flight during a game; and, in this year's playoffs, the Portland Trail Blazers discovered a snake in one of their lockers here.
In recent days, some Spurs fans, coincidentally, had taken to wearing a popular T-shirt around these parts: "We're from Texas. We can handle the Heat."
"It is unfortunate, but these are the kind of things that can happen at live sporting events," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said.
Rod Thorn, the NBA's president of basketball operations, said the league had no discussions about stopping the game or postponing its finish.
"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 had I felt at any time – I was sitting in the second row midcourt – were such that the game shouldn't be continued, then they would have come over and said something to me."
James left the court for a couple minutes midway through the fourth quarter and had his legs iced down as he watched the Spurs retake the lead. He briefly returned to drive for a layup, but immediately clutched his leg in pain and signaled for Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to take him out. Miami intentionally fouled the Spurs, and James had to be carried to the bench, likely taking any chance of the Heat winning with him.
"I think it felt like a punch in the gut when you see your leader limping like that back to the bench," Spoelstra said.
Miami's trainers hurriedly tried to ice down James, but he never returned. "At one point, he was getting up with 3½ minutes to go, and I looked at him and said, 'Don't even think about it. You can't even move at this point,' " Spoelstra said.
After trailing by as many as seven points in the second half, the Spurs buried the Heat with a fourth-quarter barrage, making 14 of their 16 shots and all six of their 3-pointers. Danny Green, who tormented the Heat early in last year's Finals, made three of the 3-pointers. The Spurs survived 23 turnovers, the product of Miami's stout defense or maybe even a bit of the building's humidity.
The arena felt warm from the opening tip, and it quickly became clear something was wrong. James was caught on ABC's microphone saying he was having trouble breathing because the arena was so steamy. The Spurs released a statement in the third quarter addressing the problem:
"An electrical failure for the power that runs the AC system in the AT&T Center has occurred. We are continuing to work on resolving the problem. We apologize for the inconvenience."
No one was as inconvenienced as James, who said "damn near the whole left side" of his body cramped. He said he tried to replenish his lost fluids as much as possible during the game and even changed his jersey at halftime to get the sweat off him.
"It was an unusual circumstance," James said. "I never played in a building like that … it's been a while, like high school game or CYO and everybody is sitting on top and you feel good being in a building like that."
With the temperature rising in the arena, fans waved giveaway placards to cool themselves as players from both teams scrambled for towels, ice and water. While teams from South Texas and South Florida are used to living in a humid climate, they aren't accustomed to playing in it during an NBA game – though some of the players admitted it reminded them of their younger days when an air-conditioned arena wasn't a given.
"Felt like I was playing in the European championship," Parker said. "We never have AC in Europe, so it didn't bother me at all."
Spoelstra and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich admitted they had to substitute more frequently. Both teams welcomed the extra off day before Game 2 to help them recover. And Popovich thought it might even give the Spurs enough time to rectify their AC.
"Hopefully," Popovich said, "we can pay our bills."