Is it possible for an individual player to tally 18 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists in an NBA Finals game and have that performance be considered lackluster? If you’re LeBron James, and your Miami Heat are playing the most consistently elite team of the last 15 years in the San Antonio Spurs, the answer is yes. Despite his gaudy triple-double, James never took over Thursday night’s marvelous series opener (the teams combined for a mere 12 turnovers, only four of which were committed by the Spurs), in which San Antonio prevailed 92-88 after a circus bank shot by Tony Parker with the 24-second clock winding down put the game out of reach.
The Spurs led for a flicker in the first quarter, and didn’t reclaim the pole until the fourth. In terms of splits, Miami won the first frame by a point, the second by two, and played the Spurs to a draw in the third. But something was amiss. Through three quarters, Miami was playing a perfect game, and yet they only led by one possession despite the fact that Kawhi Leonard and Gary Neal couldn’t hit wide open jumpers to save their lives. James was able to be Magic instead of Michael because Dwyane Wade, for the first time in the playoffs, actually played like Dwyane Wade — until he didn’t. In the fourth quarter, Wade all but disappeared, and to make matters worse for Miami, a marginally effective Chris Bosh suddenly fell in love with the elbow three. Luckily for the Spurs, such amorous overtures were not reciprocated, as the Boshstrich finished 0-4 from long range.
Usually, when his teammates flounder, James simply puts on his cape and writes a happy ending. Only, somehow, he didn’t — or couldn’t. While he received the ball in solid mid-post positions in Miami’s half-court offense, he never seemed able to develop a head of steam, or get the Heat’s smug crowd fired up by virtue of a spectacular coast-to-coast effort. Perhaps he felt too obligated to crash the boards, and, to his credit, he did a phenomenal Ben Wallace imitation in that regard. But if Miami hopes to win this series — and losing Game 1 at home to a team as seasoned as the Spurs is a killer — James needs to get out and gallop, not bale hay and apply pumice.
As good as Parker (a team-high 21 points) was down the stretch, the game hung on Tim Duncan’s ability to dominate, and dominate he did, notching 20 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks after a miserable first quarter. While much has been made about Duncan’s weight loss as pundits seek to explain his failure to let age slow him down, his improved high-post and free-throw shooting are what’s enabled him to remain a tough cover in spite of diminished athleticism. In this respect, he’s similar to Karl Malone, who developed a wicked fade-away jumper as gravity gobbled up his vertical leap. But against the Heat’s soft interior, Duncan still had his way down low.
Late in the game, Duncan found himself with a clear path to the basket. After a dribble or two, James rotated to the low block, where he forced Duncan, who rightfully ascertained that he couldn’t elevate and dunk over his spryer rival, into an awkward — and awful — point-blank miss. But, in a sense, the possession represented a victory for the Spurs, as they forced James to do yeoman’s work instead of leading the break. If they continue to box him into that role, the Spurs will soon be hoisting their fifth championship trophy of the Duncan era, regardless of whether James notches a triple-double in every game.