This time, the Heat had its lead and kept it.
The memory of last season’s collapse in the fourth quarter of Game 4 against the Mavericks served as a source of constant motivation for the Heat for an entire year. On Tuesday at AmericanAirlines Arena, LeBron James and the Heat finally exorcised those demons. The Heat defeated the Thunder 104-98 in Game 4 of the NBA Finals to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-7 series.
“We had to go through something to get to the point that we are resilient and that’s going through the heartbreaking loss in the Finals last year,” Dwyane Wade said. “Really having to go back and gut-check ourselves. But you’ve got to crawl before you walk. That’s what we did.
No team has ever lost a Finals after leading a series 3-1.
Down 17 in the first quarter, the Heat recorded its largest postseason comeback in franchise history. Miami can finish off the Thunder in Game 5 on Thursday at home.
Playing with constant pain in his legs, James offered a heroic effort in the final period. He scored six points in the fourth quarter despite severe leg cramps and finished with 26 points in the game on 10 of 20 shooting.
“We talked about it before the game that you have to play with an intensity like you have nothing left by the end of the game and he did,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
James entered the fourth quarter two rebounds shy of a triple-double and finished the game with 12 assists and nine boards. In a scary moment, he was carried off the court by team trainer Jay Sabol and reserve Juwan Howard with 5:15 left in the game. James was treated for leg cramps on the sideline and James Jones took James’ place briefly in the lineup.
“I knew I wasn’t injured,” James said. “Your muscles just basically lock up on you. I wanted to walk to the bench but my muscles wouldn’t allow me to.”
James’ misfortune gave the Thunder a brief window to try and steal a game in Miami and send the series back to Oklahoma City.
After leading by as many as seven points in the fourth quarter, the Heat watched Kevin Durant tie the game at 92-92 with a pair of free throws with 4:53 left. He then put the Thunder ahead by two points on its next possession. A nervous pall fell over the arena.
In the 2011 Finals, the Heat led by 10 points in the fourth quarter of Game 4 before giving it all back and eventually losing the series. With James out of the game with an injury, history seemed to be repeating itself.
Then James popped off the bench.
AmericanAirlines Arena, which cried in pain along with James as he was being carried off the court, cheered when he trotted to the scorer’s table to reenter the game. Chris Bosh stroked a jumper with 3:42 left to tie the game at 94-94 and, like a script from a movie, James then put the Heat ahead on Miami’s next possession with a three-pointer.
“At that point, he was just trying to will his body and make something happen,” Spoelstra said.
Said Thunder coach Scott Brooks: “LeBron made an amazing shot coming back from his injury.”
James backpedaled on defense gingerly after the three-pointer, his aching legs close to collapsing all over again.
“I just wanted to make a play with the limited mobility I had at the time,” James said.
The Heat went ahead 99-94 when Wade slashed past Russell Westbrook for a layup with 2:18 left. Wade finished with 25 points on 8 of 19 shooting. He was 2 of 3 from three-point range and 7 of 9 from the foul line.
Mario Chalmers, who struggled plenty in the Finals before Game 4, then carried the Heat home.
Chalmers had 12 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Heat, including the Heat’s final five points of the game. He finished with 25 points on 9 of 15 shooting, including 3 of 9 from three-point range.
“He’s a gamer,” Spoelstra said Chalmers. “He’s got guts. You can’t quantify that you can’t teach that. We needed that. We needed another guy to score points for us.”
Chalmers began the fourth quarter being guarded by Durant. A defensive wrinkle to save Durant’s legs for the final period, Chalmers took the strategy as a “sign of disrespect.” He responded with seven straight points for the Heat to counter an individual nine-point run by Westbrook.
“I knew with K.D. on me I was going to have a lot of open looks,” Chalmers said.
Bosh had 13 points and nine rebounds, falling one rebound shy of his third double-double of the Finals.
“We kept telling Rio that he was about overdue for a big game,” Bosh said. “I have to tip my hat to Rio. He gets the game ball today.”
Westbrook, critiqued throughout the series for not deferring enough shots to Kevin Durant, wouldn’t let the Thunder go down easily. The Heat led 84-79 when Westbrook scored nine straight points for Oklahoma City. His layup with 6:47 left in the game cut the Heat’s lead to 90-88 and Miami used a timeout in an attempt to cool Westbrook’s hot hand.
Westbrook finished with 43 points, including 25 in the second half. Durant had 28 points on 9 of 19 shooting. He was 1 of 5 from three-point range and the Thunder was 3 of 16 from distance as a team.
“Next game is a must win,” Durant said.
Meanwhile, the Heat was 10 of 26 from three-point range. Rookie Norris Cole, who had eight points off the bench, provided a pair of key three-pointers in the first half. Shane Battier was 1 of 4 from three-point range and finished with four points. Thunder sixth man James Harden had eight points on 2 of 10 shooting, four turnovers and five fouls in 37 minutes.
“A lot of credit to Norris Cole, with the new haircut, to come up big,” Wade said.
Oklahoma City struggled in the first three first quarters of the Finals but came out swinging in Game 4. The Thunder led 33-19 after the first quarter with Westbrook scoring 10 points in the first 12 minutes and Durant adding eight. The Thunder was 15 of 24 shooting in the first period while the Heat went 8 of 23 from the field.
But the Heat rallied in the second quarter behind and unlikely source. Cole, sporting a newly cut high-top fade similar to his college days, came off the bench late in the first quarter and gave the Heat life with a three-pointer near the buzzer. The Heat carried the momentum into the second quarter and stretched out a 16-0 run. After such a flat start, Miami was back in the game before halftime. Cole scored eight points in seven minutes between the first and second quarters and the Heat outscored the Thunder 27-16 in the second period.
“It’s a big-time team win,” James said. “We needed every point and every rebound to get it.”