Heat rally to move within one win of title
MIAMI — With one more victory, all the doubts end.
For LeBron James. For the Miami Heat. For Pat Riley’s Big Three vision during 2010 NBA free agency.
Surging back from an early 17-point deficit, the Heat survived a late James leg cramp and 43 points from Russell Westbrook for a 104-98 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder at AmericanAirlines Arena on Tuesday.
“This is incredibly competitive on both sides,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, “and there’s not much margin for error either way.”
The victory pushed the Heat to a 3-1 series lead, with Game 5 Thursday on the Heat’s home court. If the Heat don’t close it out then, the series shifts to Oklahoma City for the potential final two games.
“We have to finish the job that we started,” forward Chris Bosh said.
James led the Heat with 26 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, falling short of a triple-double only when a late led cramp got in the way. Heat guards Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers added 25 points apiece, while Bosh had 13 points and nine rebounds.
“It’s a big-time team win,” James said. “We needed everything everyone had to get it.”
With the Heat’s balance, not even 28 points from forward Kevin Durant was enough for the Thunder.
“We’re going to keep fighting,” Durant said. “It’s frustrating to lose like that.”
The Heat pushed to a 90-83 lead early in the fourth quarter on a Wade 3-pointer, but Westbrook, clearly back in his offensive rhythm, converted a three-point play and scored on another driving basket to draw the Thunder within 90-88 with 6:47 to play, with another basket by the Oklahoma City point guard tying it 90-90.
From there, James scored in transition for the Heat, for a 92-90 lead, but then had to be helped off when he suffered a cramp with 5:15 to play and the Heat up by that score.
“It’s basically like your legs shut down, your body shuts down, there’s nothing you can do about it,” said James, who said he was feeling much better after the game.
A pair of Durant free throws tied it 92-92, and before James could check back in, Durant hit a jumper for a 94-92 Thunder lead. James then re-entered after a Chalmers turnover, and soon a Bosh layup tied it 94-94.
Westbrook then was off with a shot, and James, clearly not at full explosion, drained a 3-pointer for a 97-94 Heat lead.
“I was just trying to make a play,” James said. “If I was out on the floor, I just wanted to try to make a play with the limited mobility I had.”
Chalmers followed with a steal, and a scooping layup by Wade put the Heat up 99-94.
The Heat held on from there.
“That’s a total group effort,” Wade said. “That’s the reason we all came here together. Big plays, big moments, that’s what this team is built on.”
The third-quarter scoring ended on a somewhat odd Thunder three-point play, when Westbrook hit a jumper and Durant was fouled by James Jones on the box-out. Durant converted the ensuing free throw to draw the Thunder within 79-75 going into the fourth quarter.
Both teams picked up the offensive pace in the third quarter, with a pair of jumpers from suddenly resurgent Chalmers pushing the Heat to a 66-60 lead and a Shane Battier 3-pointer later putting the Heat up 71-66.
The 33 points in the third quarter for the Heat were their high for any period in these Finals, and they played the period without a turnover.
The third quarter ended with James one rebound shy of his eighth career playoff triple-double and second of the postseason with the Heat.
Westbrook was up to 26 points at end of the third period.
It also was an odd game first three periods on two counts. Foremost, James did not get to the foul line for the first time until 3:16 remained in the third quarter, while Durant did not record a rebound in those first three periods, his first coming with 11:29 to play.
A torrid start to the game by the Thunder and an equivalent response by the Heat to open the second period led to the Thunder holding a 49-46 lead at halftime.
Westbrook, who continued to shoot without fear, this time was hot early, pacing the Thunder with 18 first-half points on 9-of-15 shooting, with Durant adding 12 over the first two periods.
The Heat had more balance early, with James and Wade leading the way with 10 first-half points apiece.
As ugly as it was for the Heat in the first quarter, which ended with the Thunder up 33-19 — the Heat’s largest deficit going into the second period this season, playoffs or regular season — Miami was equally as sharp at the start of the second period.
A 13-0 Miami run to start the second period quickly closed the deficit, and the Heat eventually tied it on a Wade 3-pointer. The 13-0 run was capped by a Chalmers 3-point play, giving him his first free throw of the series as well as his first basket since the early stages of Game 2.
The Heat got a scare midway through the second period when Wade landed hard after his shot was blocked by Serge Ibaka. The Heat called timeout, and Wade was able to continue after the stoppage. Ibaka was forced to the bench moments later with his third foul.
For the first time in the series, it was the Thunder that got off to the fast start, opening 6-of-7 from the field to jump to a 13-3 lead and force a Heat timeout with 8:09 to play in the first quarter. The Heat were 1-of-6 from the field at that point, later falling to 1-of-7 before a James layup. The Thunder extended their shooting start to 7-of-8.
Entering the night, the Thunder had led for a grand total of 36 seconds of the first halves of the series’ first three games, all in Game 3.
This time, when they pushed to a 25-12 lead midway through the first quarter, it represented their largest lead of the series to that point. The Thunder’s largest lead had been 11 over the series’ first three games.
The Thunder closed the first quarter up 14, behind eight points from Durant.
About the only downside early for the Thunder was Ibaka being forced to the bench with his second foul just 4:43 in.
With Durant experiencing foul trouble the previous three games, the Thunder this time opened with Durant on Chalmers instead of on James. It was the logical move considering Chalmers had yet to shoot a free throw in the series entering the game.
For now, the Heat insist they’re staying in the moment.
For now, the Heat mantra is same as it ever was.
“We’ve always said, I’m sure Spo has said it 10,000 times, ‘Stay in the moment,’” Bosh said.
NOTES: A Finals with limited controversy stayed that way Tuesday. Monday, Ibaka said of James, “LeBron is not a good defender. He can play defense for two, three minutes but not 48 minutes. LeBron can’t play (Durant) one-on-one.” James pregame response Tuesday? “I don’t care what he says. It’s stupid. Somebody says something every series.” … Similarly, a year ago Durant called Bosh “a fake tough guy.” So where do the two stand now? “Last All-Star Game, we squashed all that,” Bosh said pregame. … Heat president Riley was presented with the coaches’ association lifetime achievement award pregame and made it clear he does not plan to return to coaching. “I don’t really miss it,” he said. “We have a very, very good young coach who’s growing by leaps and bounds. I did 30 years. That’s enough.”