By Tim Reynolds/The Associated Press
IAMI (AP) — LeBron James had another decision to make.
If he got dunked on, he would endure one of the game’s ultimate personal indignities. Or he could wind up making a play that would become the latest entry on his own copious highlight reel.
Suffice to say, Tiago Splitter lost this round.
James blocked Splitter’s dunk at the rim, the first salvo in what became a brilliant 38-second sequence by the NBA’s reigning MVP. The block was followed by James having an assist to set up a 3-pointer, then he deflected a ball to start a play where he got a twist-on-the-rim slam of his own. A slow start by the best player in the game was instantly forgotten.
“Just wanted to make an impact in some way,” James said.
He did that and more, and the NBA Finals are knotted up. Even on a night where James struggled offensively — or statistically, anyway — for three quarters, the Miami Heat topped the San Antonio Spurs 103-84 on Sunday night, getting the defending champions a split of their first two home games in the series.
Game 3 is Tuesday night in San Antonio.
James didn’t score until the final Heat possession of the first quarter. He started 2 for 12 from the floor, then made his last five shots.
And when he got going, the Heat ran away and hid from the Spurs.
“LeBron couldn’t get into a rhythm early on and other guys stepped up,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He showed great poise and trust in not getting caught up in feeling like he had to make ‘the play’ or score, but rather he would facilitate or let other guys make plays. And that’s what they did.”
When the Heat lose games, they typically respond by blowing out their next opponent, and this one was no different. Contributions came from everywhere — Mario Chalmers scored 19 points, Ray Allen added 13, Chris Bosh had 12 points and 10 rebounds and Dwyane Wade finished with 10 points.
The Heat were balanced, efficient and rode a huge 19-2 edge in points off turnovers. And for three quarters, James was far from his usually offensively dominant self, yet controlled play in other ways.
“He played solid basketball,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He played good D. He took what was available, read the defense, involved his teammates. He did a fine job.”
In the fourth quarter, he just found another level.
This game’s signature sequence was turned in by James starting with about 8½ minutes left in the fourth quarter. Splitter took a pass from Tony Parker and tried to dunk on someone — he didn’t know who.
He does now.
“It was a great play from him,” Splitter said. “I try to do a good play to dunk the ball — and he did even better. … I saw somebody. I didn’t know who it was. So quick.”
Quick, strong, whatever. James was all of it, in one play, and the building started to roar.
“A lot of players wouldn’t go for that,” Spoelstra said. “The risk-reward, they weigh that right away and the possibility of getting dunked on and being on highlight films. He’s been on that highlight film both ways. It takes great courage to go up and make one of those plays.”
James knew it, too.
He said that even in that slam-bam moment, the game slowed down enough in his mind for him to consider the consequences of all that could go wrong. He decided not to be deterred.
“I was, I guess, the last line of defense,” James said. “I just pride myself on that side of the floor, honestly. It didn’t matter to me. I was going to try to protect the rim the best way I could. Like I said, I was fortunate enough that I was able to make a big play for us. … Just being on both sides of the floor, being able to make an impact, that’s what it’s all about.”
When James rejoined the play, he found Allen for a 3-pointer that gave the Heat a 22-point lead. On the next possession, he got his hand on the ball for a deflection that led to a turnover, and Mike Miller rewarded him with an over-the-head pass down the floor.
James was all alone, went up for a slam as he faced the Heat bench, then spun around before landing in the other direction. The Spurs emptied their bench not long afterward.
“LeBron is unbelievable,” Parker said.
That is the long-held consensus, yes.
His stance between Games 1 and 2 of the finals was that he does not need to score a ton of points for the Heat to be successful, then went out and proved that to be absolutely correct. His eight rebounds were second-most on the Heat. His seven assists were a game-high. His three blocked shots, another game-high.
“He’s a walking triple double,” Miller said.
He was in Game 1, and the Heat lost. He didn’t have the monster numbers in Game 2, and the Heat won in a runaway. Go figure.
“We look forward to Game 3,” James said.