SAN ANTONIO — Miami Heat star LeBron James may be the easiest target in all of professional sports, but the San Antonio Spurs were the ones in his sights Sunday night.
And after being so roundly ridiculed for cramping up in Game 1 of the NBA Finals at the AT&T Center, James made sure he didn't miss his mark this time. The defending NBA Finals MVP had 35 points and 10 rebounds in a 98-96 victory in Game 2.
There were no cramps this time and other than working with the training staff, what did he do differently?
"The one thing I did differently was I took an 8:30 a.m. yoga class where we stayed," James said.
The way in which the Heat separated from the Spurs at the end was apropos, as James' decision to find Chris Bosh in the right corner for a three-pointer that put Miami up 95-93 was eerily reminiscent of the last time he'd been senselessly criticized. Yet unlike in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Indiana Pacers, Bosh buried the shot, and the Heat would eventually find themselves heading into Game 3 in Miami on Tuesday with a 1-1 series.
James had his fingerprints all over the finish, but the clinching layup from Dwyane Wade — when Bosh drew two defenders on one side of the paint and sneaked a pass to his wide-open teammate — was the sort of good-to-great play that the Spurs themselves have always pushed for. James' greatness got in the way this time, and the temperature inside this building had indeed changed.
"When we get stops and we don't turn the ball over, we're a very dangerous team," James said. "We just kind of got up in them a little bit more."
The Heat are the hot team now.
James exploded for 14 points in the third quarter, hitting six of seven shots and doing it in opposite fashion from his early contributions. He got hot from the outside this time, burying an array of jumpers (including two three-pointers) during a stretch in which he scored five consecutive baskets for the Heat and Miami took a 69-64 lead.
"I had a slow start, but all my misses were in the paint," James said. "I was very confident on what I was getting on the floor, so I just had to stick with it."
But Patty Mills helped stopped the bleeding late, hitting two consecutive three-pointers that were followed by a Tony Parker runner which ended a late 12-6 run and put San Antonio up 78-77 entering the fourth quarter.
It was, by unofficial measures, a victory of sorts to have survived James' surge. And the exact opposite of the mood at halftime.
The Spurs made a sullen walk into the locker room at halftime, tied at 43-43 and well aware that they blew a chance to hold on to early control. They had led by as many as 11 points early in the second quarter, but a Ray Allen three-pointer sparked a 15-3 run in which James finally came alive and scored nine consecutive points on spinning layups and rim-shaking put-back dunks. He was aggressive again, finishing with 13 points and seven rebounds at the break.
Everything the Spurs had worked for to that point had disappeared.
"Against a team like them, we're not going to score much if we do not stop the ball," Spurs' Manu Ginobili said.
Spurs forward Tim Duncan — who hit nine of 10 shots in Game 1 — dominated from the start. He hit five of his first six shots, among them a ferocious put-back dunk that would have been surprising even when he was in his 20s and a tip-in off a Ginobili miss that was part of the serious pressure being applied. San Antonio's offense moved with the symphonic synchronicity of a flock of birds while it hit 11 of its first 19 shots. Duncan would slow down from there, missing six of his final eight shots to finish with 18 points and 15 rebounds.
The Heat showed early signs of frustration, with James giving up three of their six first-quarter turnovers in the first quarter as they struggled to find an offensive flow. Wade threw a wayward inbound pass with 4.6 seconds left in the period, then demonstratively debated the mishap with Rashard Lewis and Bosh.