OKLAHOMA CITY – This was Eastern Conference toughness. This was Pat Riley hammer-and-anvil basketball. This was LeBron James finally asserting his brutish and ridiculously unstoppable toughness.
Stealing the momentum of the NBA Finals with three consecutive games coming up in Miami, the Heat defeated the Thunder 100-96 on Thursday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena to tie the best-of-7 series at 1-1.
James, making clear from the beginning that he was the strongest, most athletic player in the building, scored 32 powerful points, most of them coming from close range on post-up moves or difficult drives to the basket. He was 10 of 22 from the field and 12 of 12 from the free-throw line.
“He’s been doing it in so many different ways in this playoff run,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Whatever it takes.”
Spoelstra uttered words like “muscle” and “toughness” after the game, clearly pleased with his team’s effort after allowing the Thunder to dominate the paint and second half of Game 1. Once again, Oklahoma City outscored the Heat in the second half, 53-45 this time, but Miami did just enough to hold on. The Heat were 22 of 25 from the free-throw line.
The Heat outscored the Thunder 48-32 in the paint and seemingly executed every adjustment they wanted to make after their collapse in Game 1 but still, somehow, Miami watched it nearly all unravel in the final seconds. The Heat led 98-91 with less than 50 seconds to play when Russell Westbrook cut it to a two-possession game with a driving layup. The Heat then fumbled away the ball bringing it up the court, and Kevin Durant scooped it up for an easy 3-pointer with 37.5 seconds. It cut the Heat’s lead to 98-96.
Suddenly, after so much had gone right for the Heat, it was dangerously close to going down 2-0 in the series. Durant, who finished with 32 points, had the ball in his hands with less than 10 seconds to play but missed a 7-foot bank shot. James desperately grabbed the defensive rebound and was fouled immediately by Westbrook. James made his final free throws of the night to seal the victory.
“Well, that’s competition, and that’s what it’s about,” Spoelstra said.
Dwyane Wade, critiqued for looking a little past his prime in Game 1, responded with 24 points, including 13 in the first half. Wade was 10 of 20 from the field and 4 of 6 from the free-throw line.
Starting his first game since the Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Chris Bosh had 16 points and 15 rebounds, including seven offensive boards. He breathed life into the Heat’s half-court offense from the beginning of the game and settled the defense on the other end.
Bosh did the little things well. He absorbed a charge by James Harden with a minute left in the third quarter to preserve a double-digit lead. He spread the Thunder’s defense for his hard-driving teammates but also hustled to loose balls in the paint.
Bosh did the big things even better. His dunk with 53.8 seconds left gave Miami a seven-point lead and ensured the Heat would win.
The Heat held a 78-67 lead entering the fourth and had 20 more points in the paint than Oklahoma City. A driving one-handed dunk by Durant cut the Heat’s lead to eight points with 8:20 left in the game. It was Oklahoma City’s smallest deficit since midway through the second quarter. The Heat led 27-15 after the first quarter and 55-43 at halftime.
“I love the way we came back and fought, but it’s tough to come back from 17 points,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “I give ourselves credit for fighting back, but that’s two games in a row where we got down in the first six minutes. We’ve got to come out better.”