Dwyane Wade landed on his tailbone. Given Wade’s vertical leap, it’s a long descent to the hardwood. And humans don’t bounce like basketballs.
He grimaced, clutched his lower back, rolled on the floor.
It didn’t look good.
Later, at crunch time, LeBron James tripped and fell. He bit his lower lip, dragged his right leg, had to be carried to the bench.
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It didn’t look good.
In Game 4 of the NBA Finals, the Heat was down.
But not out.
The Heat stumbled.
But got up.
Miami’s quest for a title became acutely painful Tuesday.
But afterward, bliss.
It took a collective effort – big baskets from Mario Chalmers, a timely tip by Shane Battier, three-pointers by Norris Cole, and grace under duress from Wade and James, but the Heat survived a frantic onslaught by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the closing minutes to take a 3-1 lead with the 104-98 victory.
The Heat displayed a trait that is often overlooked with this supposed glamour team: Resilience.
James, limping, his muscles shot through with cramps, swished a three-pointer.
Wade, stiff and bruised, sank a driving scoop shot, then saved a ball from going out of bounds with a midair toss over the back of his head, then nicked a three-point attempt by Thabo Sefolosha.
The ending was crazy, dramatic, utterly unpredictable and so fitting for these two teams.
The Heat could finish it Thursday by Biscayne Bay but you almost wish this series could go on and on.
The Thunder has been in contention but the Heat has made the key plays down the stretch.
“Whatever it takes,” said Wade, who scored 25 points. “No excuses. You don’t want to leave this arena saying you missed this opportunity.”
The unlikely lifeguard was Chalmers, the guy most often scolded by James and Wade for his sometimes inexplicable plays. He drove past Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka for a layup after a pass from Wade for a five point lead with 44 seconds left.
Chalmers started the game 0-for-3 – and was mired in a 2-for-18 slump -- but finished with 25 points, including 12 on 4-for-5 shooting in the fourth quarter. His three three-pointers deflated OKC.
“Mario has that thing called heart and no matter how tough we are on him, he actually thinks he’s the best player on this team and that’s a gift and a curse,” Wade said. “He always believes, ‘Find me, I can make a shot.’”
James did not have his usual gaudy point total, with 26, but he nearly had a triple-double with 12 assists and nine rebounds. James showed why he is the best all-around player in basketball and the league MVP.
In the end, the Heat worked the way the team was designed to work. Devote extra resources to James and Wade will make you pay. Or vice versa. Sag off Chalmers or Battier or James Jones and they will make you pay.
Westbrook tried furiously to save his team with 43 points and a heroic 17-point fourth quarter but it wasn’t enough.
“It doesn’t mean nothing,” he said.
Westbrook erred by fouling Chalmers after he caught the jump ball tip from Battier. The Heat led by three with 13.8 seconds left. Westbrook did not need to foul. Chalmers calmly sank both free throws.
“Just miscommunication on my part,” Westbrook said.
Kevin Durant, who scored 28 points but had only two rebounds, said the Thunder won’t think about the odds against them.
“We’re going to keep fighting,” he said. “It’s frustrating to lose like that. Russell and I are going to tell our guys to keep believing.”
The Heat, drawing on the lessons it learned in last year’s Finals collapse against Dallas, was tougher, more resourceful. The teamwork missing last season is thriving now and produced a balanced victory. Wade and James got help when they needed it. In fact, James, the central actor in this show, was on the sideline, in pain, when the game concluded.
“It was a big-time team win and we needed every point, every rebound,” James said. “Without the sacrifices and commitment from the other guys we wouldn’t be in this position. If someone goes down, someone steps up.”
The Heat came in with a 2-1 lead and a chance to shove the Thunder to the cliff edge. Since the 2-3-2 Finals format was instituted in 1985, no team has recovered from a 1-3 disadvantage.
Fed up with being outmuscled by the Heat, the Thunder asserted itself early, racing from end to end, weaving inside the lane and popping jumpers that barely rustled the net. They ran like they were trying to hop aboard an accelerating train. Westbrook, a magnet for criticism because of his non-traditional point guard style, got his team off to a fast start and a 33-19 lead.
And the Heat players reacted like they were being run over. It was not a good sign when Nick Collison blew by Bosh for a layup.
But the Heat came back quickly by tightening its defense, forcing the Thunder to resort to too much one-on-one basketball.
In the seesaw fourth quarter, Wade put the Heat ahead by seven with one of his rare three-pointers and Westbrook countered with seven straight points. James went down, his legs locked by cramps, and was taken to the bench. OKC took a two-point lead. James hobbled back in and nailed his three-pointer. Wade stole the ball from Durant and flicked in a layup. With 55 seconds left and the Heat clinging to a three-point lead, James’ cramps worsened and he hobbled back out. Chalmers responded with a layup and three free throws. Wade added three rebounds, two steals and a block to go with his five fourth-quarter points.
James watched it unfold and felt almost as much satisfaction as he would have on the court.
“I’ve got a lot of faith in my teammates and I love them for the way they played tonight,” he said.
Before the game, Derek Fisher told the Thunder players: “One more win. One more time.”
James had a different message in the pre-game huddle.
“Don’t feel sorry for no one,” he said. “Feel exhausted.”
They felt fatigue. They felt pain. But they didn’t feel sorry.
“That’s what it’s about this time of year,” Wade said. “It would hurt more if we lost.”