LeBron James finally got off to the kind of strong start everyone expected from the four-time MVP, scoring 11 points to help the Miami Heat take a 29-26 lead over the San Antonio Spurs after one quarter in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night.
James didn't take a shot in the first half of the first quarter, but was 5 of 6 in the final 6:30 to rally the Heat back from a 10-point deficit. Dwyane Wade added 10 points for the defending champions, who trail the Spurs 2-1 in the series.
Tony Parker showed no ill effects from a sore right hamstring, scoring 11 points for the Spurs. Gary Neal added seven points off the bench, but the Spurs committed six turnovers to let the Heat stay in it.
Game 5 in the best-of-seven series is Sunday night in San Antonio.
Parker strained his right hamstring during Game 3, leaving many in San Antonio to fear that the big step forward they made with their win in Game 3 came at a hefty price. But Parker deemed himself "ready to go" at the team's morning shootaround and was in the starting lineup on Thursday night.
He sure looked fine early. All the old Parker tricks were there in the first quarter — a pull-up jumper to open the game, a driving layup and then another off the pick-and-roll. Kawhi Leonard then buried a 3-pointer to give the Spurs a 15-5 lead early in the game.
Then James made the move the Heat have been waiting for all series.
He took the ball coast-to-coast on two straight possessions during run that tied the game at 19. James then hit two mid-range jumpers — an area that has been a struggle for him — to cap the 14-2 surge and give Miami a 25-21 lead.
In an unusual move, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra decided to shuffle the starting lineup midseries. He inserted the sharp-shooting Mike Miller for big man Udonis Haslem in an effort to create more room for James and Wade to penetrate to the rim.
Miller was 9 for 10 on 3-pointers in his first three games of the finals, but was scoreless in the first quarter.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich started big with Duncan and Tiago Splitter, who was guarding Wade. But that lasted all of 47 seconds, until Splitter picked up a foul on Wade, prompting Popovich to go to Neal.
The momentum swung wildly in the previous two games, with the Heat bouncing back from a Game 1 loss on their own floor to blow the Spurs out of the building in Game 2. They led by as many as 27 points in a 103-84 victory that featured an awakening from James during a 33-5 run.
Then the Spurs returned for the first finals game in San Antonio since 2007, and blitzed the Heat from all angles. Danny Green and Neal combined for 51 points and 13 3-pointers, and the Spurs led by 37 points in the fourth quarter of a 113-77 victory.
If there was a common theme in all three games, it was the curiously meek performance from James, the four-time MVP. He entered this series after perhaps the best season of his career, a versatile and efficient freight train that had taken the league and made it his own.
He was out to show just how far he'd come from 2007, when the Spurs dismantled his Cleveland Cavaliers in the finals and exposed the rising star as a player who could be neutralized if he was forced to settle for jumpshots. James promised that he would not be so easily contained this time around, and .565 shooting percentage during the regular season, including .406 on 3-pointers, seemed to support that theory.
But the Spurs have done to him in these finals exactly what they did to him six years ago. They've clogged the paint with two big men — Duncan and Splitter — and surrounded him on the perimeter with a pack of hungry young wings led by Leonard and Green.
The results had been unlike anything the league has grown used to seeing from its biggest star. James entered Game 4 averaged 16.7 points on 38.9 percent shooting. He was just 3 for 13 from 3-point range in the first three games, and even more startling, only had six free throw attempts.
"I'm putting all the pressure on my chest, on my shoulders to come through for our team," James said. "That's the way it is."
It would be hard to find much higher stakes than Game 4 for the Heat. No team in NBA history has come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the championship.