SAN ANTONIO — With his doubters, critics, and detractors waiting for his response to Crampgate, LeBron James once again displayed why he is premier player of this generation when the Miami Heat desperately needed his guidance.
James scored a game-high 35 points, and instead of challenging three defenders on a drive to the hoop, he shuffled a pass to a wide-open Chris Bosh for a corner 3-pointer with 1:18 left, and the Heat held on for a 98-96 victory over the San Antonio Spurs in Game 2 of the NBA Finals.
After missing the final 3:59 of Miami’s Game 1 loss with leg cramps in the searing heat of an un-air-conditioned arena, James played a team-high 37:36, including the final 9:22 when perhaps the Heat’s season was at stake.
“Just play the game, try to play the game the right way. However the flow of the game is going, I just try to impose my will in some kind of way,” he said afterward. “Just myself and my teammates in a position to succeed, and I was happy in the fact that I was able to make some plays to help us get the victory tonight.”
James scored 33 of his points in the final three quarters on 13-for-18 shooting, but San Antonio had plenty of chances to eke out a victory. The key sequence occurred with 6:43 left and Tony Parker at the line for two free throws following a flagrant foul by Miami’s Mario Chalmers.
Parker, reeling from a blow to the ribs, missed both free throws. Tim Duncan was fouled on the next possession and he missed both attempts. Moments later, James coldly drained a 3-pointer from the left elbow for an 88-87 lead, completing the 7-point swing.
“Every possession counts, I mean, if LeBron gets hot and starts making shots like that, it can happen,” Spurs swingman Manu Ginobili said. “But we were still in the game and down the stretch we couldn’t execute well. We took a few bad shots, contested, and they didn’t. They found Chris Bosh wide open on the corner. They took a few shots that went in and, bottom line, is that it was a very close game in the last two minutes [and] they executed better.”
After Bosh’s jumper gave Miami a 95-93 lead, Ginobili, frustrated about being poked in the eye by Ray Allen, fired an errant pick-and-roll pass to Duncan that flew out of bounds.
James added a free throw for a 3-point lead and Ginobili missed a 19-footer with 29.9 seconds left. Dwyane Wade sealed it with a late layup, extending Miami’s streak to 47 games without losing consecutive postseason contests.
James’s response after a disappointing exit Thursday was not surprising considering the Heat had not lost consecutive playoff games since 2011. After spending Friday and Saturday undergoing treatment for his dehydration, James said he participated in an outdoor yoga class Sunday morning at the team hotel along three other patrons.
He carried the Heat in stretches in the second and third quarters, but in the key moment of the game, he played distributor with the pass to Bosh.
“My teammates, they know when I got the ball, I’m going to make the right play,” James said. “They believe in my ability to do that. I’ve got a lot of confidence in my teammates and they’ve got a lot of confidence in me.”
James made the identical play in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Pacers in the final minute, but Bosh missed the 3-pointer and James was criticized for not attacking the basket.
“Just me knowing how LeBron is, you always have to be poised and ready to shoot the basketball,” Bosh said. “He’s the most unselfish player I’ve ever played with, and especially with the talent that he has playing the game, the way he plays the game. He doesn’t try to force anything.”
Parker scored 21 points, Ginobili 19 and Tim Duncan 18, but the Spurs relied mostly on the 3-point shot. They were 12 for 26 from long range, but just 24-for-56 on 2-point shots. San Antonio was 6 for 17 from the field in the fourth quarter — compared with 14 for 16 in Game 1 — and got no points from Duncan or Kawhi Leonard.
“LeBron did a great job at his end and we had to be really pretty perfect at the other end and we didn’t,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “We didn’t take advantage. We made bad decisions. The ball stuck to us. We tried to do it individually and we’re not good enough to do that.”
The series, now tied at 1, shifts to Miami for Games 3 and 4 on Tuesday and Thursday.
With 9 points in a three-minute stretch of the second period, James showed he was beginning to develop a flow after a miserable past three days. In the third quarter, he went on an 8-point scoring binge in the span of 52 seconds that gave Miami a 64-62 lead with 4:50 left in the period.
There are many varieties for James to score, and in this stretch he burned the Spurs with the jumper. He drained two 3-pointers that sandwiched an 18-footer as the Heat began to impose their will.
The issue, however, was fatigue. After he scored 27 points in 27 minutes, James headed to the bench for the final three minutes of the third quarter. The Spurs took advantage by going on a 14-7 run to end the period for a 78-77 lead.
James finished the half with 13 points on 6-for-11 shooting, but it was obvious that after receiving IVs and treatment over the past 60 hours that he lacked that explosion toward the basket. Still, he was good enough to keep Miami in the game, making for a thrilling second half.
The arena was comfortably cool after the air conditioning was fixed in the early morning hours Friday in time for a concert that evening. James admitted before the game he still wasn’t 100 percent after cramping profusely in Game 1, but he returned to form after struggling a bit in the first quarter.
“Look, he’s the best player in the game. Does that mean it’s going to be [35 points]? You don’t know,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He has an incredible way to put his fingerprints on a game in a lot of different areas. We have a very competitive group and you have two days to commiserate how that game went down.
“It was frustrating, painful going through that for two days, and now we have to manage the other emotion. That can be just as challenging.”