LeBron James had a triple-double. Dwyane Wade played like his painful knee wasn’t so painful anymore. And the Miami Heat spent most of the night holding a lead.
Then they missed a bunch of shots, and started throwing the ball away.
Simple as that, the challenge of repeating as NBA champions got much tougher.
James finished with a sensational final stat line, 18 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists. But the Heat needed more, from their four-time NBA MVP along with everyone else, after managing only 36 points after halftime and falling to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of the NBA Finals 92-88 on Thursday night.
One stat may have told the story better than any other. Tony Parker had four field goals in the fourth quarter alone for the Spurs; Miami’s starting unit combined for three field goals in the pivotal period, in which the Heat were outscored 23-16.
“The fourth quarter was the difference,” James said. “And I could see it on a few of our guys’ faces. ... We played some really good basketball in the closing quarter, and we had some mental mistakes. And there’s only a couple of teams that you can’t have mistakes against, especially in the fourth, and San Antonio is definitely the No. 1 team.”
To beat the Heat, opponents have to clamp down on the Heat, and that’s exactly what San Antonio did. When Miami scores 90 points, it has gone 73-12 this season. When it doesn’t score 90, the record is 5-9.
“We just tried to contain them,” said Tony Parker, whose 21-point night was capped by a beat-the-shot-clock jumper in the final moments to seal the win for the Spurs. “Tried to pack the paint and tried to force them to take outside shots.”
It worked. Miami was 1 for 8 on shots outside the paint in the fourth quarter, 0 for 5 from 3-point range.
“We looked like a team that came off a seven-game series,” Wade said. “I thought we got some shots we wanted, but we were a little careless at times as well.”
The Heat finished the game shooting 44 percent, and were 8 for 25 from 3-point range. They were far from at their best offensively, and forced only four turnovers all night — a horrible sign for a team that feasts upon getting easy baskets off their opponents’ mistakes.
“Well, it’s pretty clear,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “There were plays to be made, and our offensive inefficiency going down the stretch, most of the fourth quarter probably hurt us more than anything.”
Up by three entering the fourth quarter, Miami shot 5 for 18 in the final 12 minutes. Chris Bosh, who finished with 13 points, was 1 for 5 in the fourth quarter. Wade had 13 points in the first half, just four in the second half.
The Spurs, who were off for nine days before the finals, looked far more rested to close out the game. The Heat looked very much like a team that had to grind out a seven-game series against Indiana to win the East title.
“Life is about being in the hole sometimes,” Bosh said. “You either stay in the hole or dig your way out. This is resilient bunch. We didn’t get here by just having an easy time through everything so this is another challenge. We will respond to it because we have to.”
History has shown they can. Since James, Wade and Bosh became teammates, the Heat have lost Game 1 of a playoff series now four times. In the first three occasions, not only did they ultimately win the series, they won each in five games — a perfect 12-0 mark after losing those Game 1’s.
“We know they’re going to come back very strong,” Parker said.
Spoelstra said “everything is on the table” when talking earlier this week about his plan for the winner-take-all Game 7 against Indiana, and stuck with that philosophy in Game 1 of the finals.
Instead of using the customary eight or nine players in the first half, Spoelstra used 11, partially because of some mild foul trouble and partially because Mike Miller — who couldn’t crack the rotation for much of this season but was a huge part of the title-clinching win over Oklahoma City last year — was the first sub off the Miami bench.
That wasn’t the only out-of-the-norm move by Spoelstra.
With his team only up by three points entering the fourth quarter, he kept James and Wade on the bench for the first 2:59 of that final period — and when James went back into the game, the margin was still three. When Wade re-entered with 7:47 left, Parker was making a pair of free throws that gave the Spurs a 77-76 edge, their first lead since 19-18.
The Heat simply never got on the roll that they needed. And just like that, control of the finals was lost.
“We as a team pride ourselves on, no matter what’s going on, being better in the fourth quarter,” Wade said. “We had a few of those in this season where we let ourselves down where we didn’t have it in the fourth. It was one of those nights tonight. Offensively we couldn’t get it going.”