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FiveThirtyEight

Game 1 of the NBA Finals was a gift to headline writers and pun-lovers everywhere: The Miami Heat may have been undone by the San Antonio heat!

A broken air-conditioning system left the AT&T Center sweltering and contributed to a series of painful leg cramps that forced LeBron James to the bench during a crucial stretch of the fourth quarter. James exited with 7 minutes and 31 seconds left in the game. At that moment, the Heat had a two-point lead and a 62.2 percent chance of winning Game 1, according to the win probabilities models at InPredictable. From there, however, the Spurs went on a 26-9 streak, winning the game 110-95. James reappeared for just a single possession before heading back to the bench.

We probably shouldn’t read too much into the Spurs’ Game 1 win; forget the x’s and o’s and advanced analytics, the biggest factor simply may have been how many minutes James played.

In the 33 minutes he was on the floor, the Heat and Spurs were even. In the 15 minutes James was on the bench, the Spurs were +15. That’s a big swing, but it’s not surprising. Here’s Miami’s +/- per 48 minutes in previous Spurs-Heat run-ins:

Miami’s +/- Per 48 Minutes Against the Spurs

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One indirect result of James missing a big chunk of the fourth quarter: San Antonio’s Danny Green got a chance to shine. Green made all four of his shots, including three 3-pointers, in the final quarter. Although James wasn’t specifically guarding him earlier in the game, Green clearly benefited from the way the Spurs’ system functioned in James’s absence — not just making shots, but getting more of them. With James on the bench, Green attempted four shots in nine minutes. When James was on the floor, Green attempted just five shots in 19 minutes, missing all of them.

There was also one other really interesting trend in that pivotal fourth quarter: The pace of the game slowed.

A Slower Fourth Quarter

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Pace, the statistic, is a measure of possessions per 48 minutes. In the fourth quarter, the game slowed to a crawl, about 11 possessions per 48 minutes slower than the slowest pace any team averaged during the regular season. In a small sample, pace can be legitimately skewed by clusters of offensive rebounds and turnovers (turnovers increase pace by changing possession and offensive rebounds slow pace by extending a possession). But the fourth quarter pace split in Game 1 is significant because those factors should have led to a faster game. Each team turned the ball over four times, and there was just one offensive rebound in the quarter.

Despite being a slightly better offensive rebounding team and forcing slightly fewer turnovers than the Heat, the Spurs played at a much faster pace during the regular season. In our Finals’ preview, we talked about the Spurs’ ability to extend possessions with movement and passing as an antidote to the Heat’s high-pressure trapping defense. The fact that they were able to score so successfully at such a slow pace indicates that, for a quarter at least, the Spurs’ offense worked exactly as designed.

All of these little numbers help tell the story of Game 1, but everything circles back to a single number: 33 — James’s minutes played. That number should change in Game 2, and that has the potential to change everything else.

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