LeBron James walked to the free-throw line with 16.2 seconds left and spread his arms outward to silence the crowd.
He wanted it quiet in his house. He needed total concentration. In unison, thousands of people made that shushing sound we all remember from elementary school. The din diminished. Still, James missed the first foul shot. The arena gasped.
James stepped back to the line, exhaled and made his second foul shot to give the Heat a four-point lead. Finally, it was enough. Survival. Russell Westbrook missed a three-point attempt moments later and the Heat held on for a 91-85 in Game 3 of the NBA Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena.
The Heat now leads the best-of-7 series 2-1 with Games 4 and 5 at AmericanAirlines Arena on Tuesday and Thursday. The Heat can win the series with two more victories at home.
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It was fitting that the most memorable moment of the game came from the free-throw line. The Heat spent enough time there. Led by Dwyane Wade, the Heat was 31 of 35 from the foul line. Wade, who finished with 25 points and was masterful in the second half playing every second, was 9 of 11 from the line.
The Heat made 25 of its final 27 free-throw attempts and won despite shooting 37.8 percent from the floor.
“We know when we’re aggressive we’re a tough team to beat,” said Heat forward Chris Bosh, who was 4 of 4 from the line and scored 10 points to go along with 11 rebounds. “We want to put pressure on the rim and we want to attack. For the past two games, it’s really been working out for us.”
Wade had 14 points in the second half, including nine in the third quarter when the Thunder took a double-digit lead and threatened to pull away. Still, another inexplicable turnover by Wade late in the game nearly cost the Heat. Wade also had a near costly turnover late in Game 2.
Miami led 86-81 with two minutes to play when Oklahoma City reserve Thabo Sefolosha stripped Wade in the open court. Sefolosha finished the play with a dunk in transition and, after a missed jumper by Wade, Thunder guard Russell Westbrook stroked a clutch basket to cut the Heat’s lead to 86-85 with 1:30 to play.
Bosh, back in the starting lineup for the second straight game, preserved the Heat’s three-point lead with a strong move inside and a pair of free throws. Bosh finished with his second consecutive Finals double-double.
Westbrook had a chance to tie the game with 30 seconds to play but missed an open three-point attempt. Westbrook finished with 19 points, going 8 of 18 from the field, but had just six points after halftime. Westbrook didn’t play the final five minutes of the third quarter, watching from the bench as the Heat came back from a 10-point deficit.
James once again led the Heat in scoring, finishing with 29 points on 11 of 23 shooting. He was 6 of 8 from the foul line to go along with 14 rebounds and three assists. Game 3 was just the second time since the beginning of the Eastern Conference Finals that James was held to under 30 points.
Thunder star Kevin Durant was limited to 25 points on 11 of 19 shooting. He was just 2 of 4 from the foul line. The Thunder, known for its free-throw shooting, was 15 of 24 from the line in its first road Finals game in franchise history.
“We led the league in free-throw shooting percentage,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “We missed some free throws tonight.”
Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook had 19 points, going 8 of 18 from the field. He had just six points after halftime. Thunder sixth man James Harden had nine points off the bench.
Back to back three-point plays by Wade and James gave the Heat an 84-77 lead with 3:47 to play. Following a turnover by Harden, James slammed into Durant with 3:47 left in the clock, forcing the Thunder’s All-Star power forward to commit his fifth foul of the game. Durant has been plagued by foul trouble in the last two games of the series. The Thunder jumped out to a double-digit lead early in the third quarter but the Heat clawed its way back after Durant went to the bench with his fourth foul.
“I’m just trying to play aggressive,” Durant said. “I’ve got to play smarter the next game.”
Mario Chalmers began the game 0 of 6 from the field and made several poor decisions defensively throughout the game. In short, he’s had back-to-back subpar efforts in the Finals. Nonetheless, his first field goal of the game was an important one, coming with 8:24 left in the game to give the Heat a three-point lead, 76-73.
The Heat outscored the Thunder 22-21 in the third quarter. It marked the first time in the series the Heat outscored the Thunder in a period after halftime.
Hard fought from beginning to end, the third period ended with a 13-2 run by Miami. The spurt gave the Heat a 69-67 lead entering the fourth quarter.
The Heat began the third quarter 1 of 10 from the field, allowing the Thunder to take a 10-point lead despite Durant missing time after picking up his fourth foul. Chalmers compounded his poor shooting night when he fouled Derrick Fisher in the act of shooting a three-pointer with 4:33 left. Fisher swished the three-pointer and then his continuation free throw to put Oklahoma City in front 64-54.
“They made us stagnant,” James said. “We weren’t playing our game and they came out in the third quarter and attacked us and we didn’t attack back.”
While James pounded his way to the glass in the first half, the Thunder limited James’ driving lanes to begin the third quarter and it paid off. James had just two points through most of the third period after leading all-scorers in the first half.
“What I liked was the resolve [James] showed in the second half,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He started off the quarter and missed a couple. All of sudden we’re down 10. I took him out to give him a quick breath and when he came back in he had a look that he was going to make plays.”
Meanwhile, Durant found his groove early in the third. Back-to-back baskets inside by Durant — first a dunk and then a layup — gave the Thunder a 60-53 lead with 6:56 left in the period. It came in the end of a 10-2 run by Oklahoma City and silenced AmericanAirlines Arena.
The Heat caught breaks on back-to-back possessions with less than three minutes remaining in the third quarter when first Serge Ibaka and then Derrick Fisher fouled Heat three-point shooters. Battier made his three free throws and so did James Jones to cut the Thunder’s lead to 65-62.
“There’s nothing you can do about it other than a great contest,” Brooks said. “But it was the right calls. We fouled both shooters.”Fans didn’t find their voices until James put the Heat ahead by two points with 52 seconds left in the period. Miami outscored the Thunder 44-39 in the second half.
The Heat shot 13.6 percent from outside the restricted area in the first half but made up for the poor numbers with a dominant effort inside. Led by James, Miami scored 30 points in the paint to take a 47-46 halftime lead. James had 16 points in the first half, going 7 of 13 from the field. The Heat finished with 46 points in the paint compared to 42 for the Thunder.
Wade had 11 points in the first half, making 5 of 15 shots to along with five assists and four rebounds. His three-point play with 3:59 left in the second quarter put Miami ahead 38-36 with four minutes left in the half. Shane Battier made a pair of three-pointers with in the final two minutes of the half to give him 11 three-pointers in the first 10 quarters of the Finals. Battier finished with nine points.