This was Eastern Conference toughness. This was Pat Riley hammer-and-anvil basketball. This was LeBron James finally asserting his brutish and ridiculously unstoppable potential on the biggest stage.
Stealing away the momentum of the NBA Finals with three straight games now in Miami, the Heat defeated the Thunder 100-96 on Thursday at Chesapeake Energy Arena to tie the best-of-7 series at 1-1. It was the Thunder’s first loss at home of the playoffs. 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.
“We wanted to split,” James said. “Game 2, we wanted to come out and get a win. We didn’t want to go back home down two.”
While his offense shaped the game early, his defense saved it in the end. He provided desperate defense against Kevin Durant in the closing seconds, forcing the young offensive maven to miss from seven feet with a chance to tie the game. James was 10 of 22 from the field and 12 of 12 from the free-throw line.
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“I just wanted to put a body on him,” James said.
Heat coach Erik 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 the second half in 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 was 22 of 25 from the free-throw line.
“We were able to play a little bit more to our disposition and to our identity more consistently tonight and that was probably the biggest factor,” Spoelstra said.
Miami outscored the Thunder 48-32 in the paint, held Oklahoma City to 43 percent shooting and seemingly executed every adjustment it wanted to make after its collapse in Game 1. Still, somehow, the Heat watched it nearly all unravel in the final seconds.
Miami led 98-91 with less than 50 seconds to play when Durant cut it to a two-possession game with a driving layup. Then disaster struck. Dwyane Wade fumbled away the ball bringing it up the court, which led to an easy three-pointer by Kevin Durant 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. James missed a three-point attempt with 14.9 seconds left and Durant, who finished with 32 points, had the ball in his hands with 12 seconds to play.
“We had a chance, man. It’s tough,” said Durant, who had 16 points in the fourth quarter. “It’s tough to lose that way. I was open and I missed the shot.”
James 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 to go along with six rebounds and five assists. He was 4 of 6 from the free-throw line.
“Just know that I’m always going to keep coming back until I can’t play this game no more,” Wade said. “I had more opportunities than Game 1 and I was able to attack it.”
Starting his first game since 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. He had a double-double before halftime.
“We knew we were going to give a better effort on defense,” Bosh said. “We had a game plan. I just wanted to do my part and make sure we got some boards.”
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 somehow get out of Oklahoma City, an impossibly difficult place for opponents of the Thunder, with the series tied 1-1.
Miami held a 78-67 advantage entering the fourth quarter and, at that point, 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 44-43 at halftime. Bosh made an immediate impact in a starting role, clearing the lane for Wade and James. Meanwhile, Shane Battier remained red hot from three-point range.
“We need him to take those shots,” Bosh said. “We need him to take them and make them. It really opens it up.”
Battier drained his third three-pointer of the first half to give the Heat a 42-29 lead. At that point, Battier was 7 of 10 from distance through less than six quarters of the NBA Finals. It has taken him a decade to reach the NBA’s promised land but he’s making the most of the opportunity. Batter finished with 17 points and was 5 of 7 from three-point range. He has scored 34 points in two games.
Bosh’s energy and post presence in the first half completely changed the outlook of the series for the Heat. He played 19 minutes in the first half and delivered a double-double. It was his first double-double since April 16, nearly a month’s time.
“It was key having our best players on the floor early, especially when we needed to come out and play well,” Wade said. “[Bosh] spreads the floor and gives us more gaps to get to the paint. We’re glad he’s back and that’s going to be important for the rest of the series.”
The Heat led by as many as 17 points in the first half. James, throwing his weight and strength around against younger opponents, seemed unstoppable.
“That was the game,” Durant said. “We can’t start off 18-2, especially at home.”
The Heat went ahead 51-34 with a 14-4 run in the second quarter. Five different players scored during run, which was a healthy sign for the Heat’s offense.
Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook had 27 points but needed 26 shots to do it. Sixth man James Harden had 21 off the bench and sparked the Thunder’s comeback in the second and third quarters.
“I love the way we came back and fought but it’s tough to come back from 17 points,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “I give ourselves credit for fighting back but that’s two games in a row where got down in the first six minutes. We’ve got to come out better.”