MIAMI — LeBron James better get well fast. He’s about to play for a championship.
Hardly able to move, James returned from a left leg injury to make the tiebreaking 3-pointer with 2:54 remaining and the Miami Heat held off Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder for a 104-98 victory on Tuesday night and a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals.
With James watching the final moments, Mario Chalmers finished off a stellar 25-point effort that matched Dwyane Wade. James had 26 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, only missing a triple-double because he was on the bench at the end after getting hurt with a fall to the court.
Game 5 is Thursday and James will have a chance to finish a championship chase that started in Cleveland before he famously - or infamously - left for South Florida.
Westbrook scored 43 points for the Thunder, who blew an early 17-point lead but were never out of the game because of their sensational point guard. Kevin Durant had 28 points but James Harden threw in another clunker, finishing with eight points on 2-of-10 shooting. Westbrook and Durant were the only Thunder players to score in the last 16:46.
“I can guarantee this,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “We have fight in us.”
Game 5 is in Miami on Thursday night, where James and the Heat can capture the NBA title that they were assembled to get two years ago.
History says the Thunder are now in deep, deep trouble. No team in NBA history has rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the finals. No team has even forced a Game 7 when faced with that scenario.
Westbrook took 32 shots, as many as James and Chris Bosh tried combined. He made 20 — half of Oklahoma City’s field goals on the night — and finished with seven rebounds and five assists as well. For a guard who struggled so much so many times against Miami, it was a breakout night that the Thunder desperately needed.
“I thought Russell was terrific tonight,” Brooks said. “The guy played relentless. He was aggressive. He kept us in this game and he gave us a chance to win.”
Said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra: “He was tremendous tonight.”
What they also needed was to take advantage of that tremendous night — and that didn’t happen, largely because Miami made sure Oklahoma City only had two options by night’s end.
Durant’s mother grabbed him by both arms as he walked off the floor, hugging him and then using her right hand to turn his face back toward her, trying her best to console the scoring champion.
For the final 16-plus minutes, the Thunder were reduced to playing 2-on-5 basketball. Serge Ibaka made a jumper with 4:46 left in the third quarter, cutting Miami’s lead to 68-66.
After that, it was either all Westbrook or all Durant, all the time.
And they were superb, again, just not superb enough to take down Miami. After that Ibaka jumper, no other Thunder player besides the team’s two superstars scored a point.
“It’s not disappointing. It’s just, it happens that way,” Brooks said. “Russell had a great game. We were going. We were going with him. He was making terrific plays at the basket. He was attacking, he was getting into the teeth of their defense and made basketball plays.”
James Harden struggled yet again, shooting 2 for 10 for the second straight game, though he did finish with 10 rebounds. Nick Collison scored six points, but the other three Oklahoma City starters — Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha — combined for a mere 13 on 6-for-16 shooting.
Westbrook was amazing. Durant was great. Everyone else was nearly nonexistent.
And if the Thunder don’t figure out a way to do something no NBA team has ever done throughout the rest of this series, James will finally get that ring he’s spent nine seasons chasing.