Everything changes with James out of equation

No asterisk goes next to this result, and no excuses will come from the Miami Heat. Only one player pulled up lame and limped off with cramps, but it just happened to be LeBron James, the best player in the game.

In sweltering conditions Thursday night in San Antonio, where the air conditioning broke down in the AT&T Center, the Spurs beat the Heat mostly because James broke down, too.

If James didn’t start cramping in the fourth quarter, Miami might be up 1-0 in the NBA Finals. But we’ll never know, and it’s irrelevant now anyway.

San Antonio has a leg up in the series after a 110-95 victory that was a little lucky. As soon as James went to the bench, the Heat began to hobble and eventually got knocked out cold.

Injuries are impossible to predict and handicap, and James’ injury turned a back-and-forth fight into a blowout. The final score is deceiving, but the result was not surprising. It was what most bettors expected.

“The wiseguys are betting San Antonio like the series is over,” William Hill sports book director Nick Bogdanovich said before tipoff. “It’s a monster handle. Lots of interest. The two best teams are playing. I think we’ll see some close basketball games.”

His assessment was on the money. For 3½ quarters, the top two teams in the NBA clashed in a classic. But everything changed when James was eliminated from the equation.

There have been several terrible sequels — “Anchorman 2” and “Caddyshack II” are two of the worst — but Heat-Spurs will not be one of them. This series is a heavyweight slugfest that should go the distance.

James has plenty of time to hydrate before Game 2 on Sunday, when the air conditioning will be fixed.

The Heat will need to bring their “A” game again, because that’s exactly what they brought for most of Game 1. For a while, it was a flashback to his youth for Dwyane Wade, who showed there is spring left in his old knees by scoring on spectacular drives to the basket.

Ray Allen was knocking down 3-pointers and even soared through the lane for a highlight-reel slam. Chris Bosh was sinking jumpers, and his four-point play put Miami up 86-79 with 9:38 remaining.

Yet that’s about the time James missed back-to-back jumpers and started to lose his swagger. He took a break, and the Heat lost control. James returned and drove for a layup to cut the Spurs’ lead to 94-92 with just over four minutes left. Leg cramps sidelined him for the rest of the night.

San Antonio, which closed as a 5-point favorite after the line opened at 3, covered the spread and delivered the cash.

If a 15-point loss can be a bad beat, this was it. James’ injury probably flipped the point-spread result. Also, the proposition for James’ points was 27½, and he finished with 25. Still, the Spurs earned the win, thanks to a late 3-point barrage by Danny Green.

The Spurs were sloppy, committing 22 turnovers, but their 3-point shooting (13 of 25) and overall field-goal percentage (58.8) compensated for the shortcomings.

Tim Duncan was predictably reliable with 21 points and 10 rebounds. Tony Parker ran the point while showing no signs of his ankle injury, and Manu Ginobili made plays as always. But it was workhorse center Tiago Splitter who kept San Antonio close during its miserable third quarter.

A gap between Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and the Heat’s Erik Spoelstra does exist, but it’s not too big for Miami to overcome. Both teams are led by high-IQ veteran players. Both teams are disciplined defensively and display fluid ball movement and good spacing offensively. It can be beautiful basketball to watch.

For a long stretch Thursday, the Heat were more impressive. But the Spurs caught a break and took advantage, and I still think they will win in seven games.

Bogdanovich said while the public seemed to bet Miami more in the opener, the professionals pounded the Spurs, driving the series price from minus-130 to minus-150.

“I hope they’re right,” Bogdanovich said. “Personally, I’d rather see the classy Duncan, Parker and Popovich win. Duncan, who hasn’t uttered a word in 17 years, said he wanted the Heat. Hopefully, he can back it up.”

A fact from ESPN Stats &Info indicates a seven-game series is unlikely this year. There have been 12 repeat Finals matchups in NBA history, but no repeat ever has featured back-to-back Game 7s between the teams.

This should be different for two reasons. One, the Heat, as two-time defending champions, are not limping away without putting up a great fight. Two, the shift to the 2-2-1-1-1 format likely will make Miami a home favorite in Game 6, and at that point the Heat probably won’t be in position to close out the series.

According to Paul Bessire of PredictionMachine.com, which ran 50,000 simulations of the Finals, 66.2 percent of the time this series went at least six games. The Spurs’ old timers are in control, for now.

In the opener, it was James, a physical force, who broke down at the wrong time. That was impossible to predict.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.