And then LeBron James couldn’t move. He stood on the baseline after making a fourth-quarter layup. He hopped on his right leg once, twice, then sat down on the court.
Cramps that had forced him out of the game earlier now made his left leg immobile. He limped toward the Miami Heat bench, then stopped, saying, “I can’t move.” Teammates picked him up and carried him the final steps.
All Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night, the air conditioner that blinked out had turned the AT&T Center into a night better suited for hot yoga. Now it had its first victim, the game’s biggest player.
The Heat would soon follow as the second victim in this 110-95 loss to San Antonio. But the conclusion was easy and sweaty: San Antonio’s sixth man, the air conditioner, was the difference this night as the Heat was outscored 16-3 in the final four minutes without LeBron.
“It was an unusual environment,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said diplomatically. “I think it felt like a punch in the gut when you see your leader limping like that back to the bench.”
And so the most important, most watched and most expensive night of the basketball season was reduced to an elementary school play where someone tripped over the electrical cord.
James had 23 points through three quarters. He then had to come out of the game, briefly with cramps. He re-entered, made his layup for his only fourth-quarter points, and that was all for him and the Heat.
The temperature was over 80 degrees in the first half. It rose around 90 degrees by the time James left. Players drank extra liquids. Fans, sweating as much as players, made fans to cool themselves.
There will be some conspiracy theorists who will float the idea San Antonio turned off the air conditioner on purpose, knowing James’ occasional history of cramping.
It wouldn’t be the first time some team played with some element to give themselves an edge.
But let’s be honest: These teams played in the same hot air. There’s no reason San Antonio’s aging players couldn’t have cramp as easily as the Heat’s best player did.
“It was tough on both teams,” San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich said. “Players were pretty dead. So we tried to get guys in and out a little bit more than we usually do. Kind of screw up the rhythm a bit, but it was mighty hot out there.”
The Super Bowl had the electricity go out in New Orleans last year. But the game stopped. The air conditioner went out Thursday night, and the game went on.
Everyone knows how close these teams look in this Finals rematch. Total up the points from the Finals last year and the margin of difference was five points. San Antonio scored more. The Heat won the series.
Everything expects to play out just as close this time. So a few degrees of temperature can play a crucial role this series.
“I think everybody got a little tired or dehydrated for sure,” Popovich said.
This much is obvious after Game 1: We’re not in Indiana anymore. Or Charlotte or Brooklyn or any of those wannabe-champion Eastern cities. We’re deep in the heart and high heat of Texas.
There are two days before Sunday’s Game 2. Most of them will be spent talking about San Antonio’s air-conditioning system. “We have a couple of days to pay our bills,” Popovich said.
When you’re up 1-0, even a dour coach like Popovich can crack a joke. It’s no laughing matter for the Heat.