OKLAHOMA CITY - Thursday night wasn’t about LeBron James executing in the fourth quarter, it was about the Miami Heat executing the entire game, then barely holding on when the Thunder responded with a furious late rally.
The Heat played perhaps their most complete game in weeks and James sank two late free throws to secure a 100-96 win over the Thunder in Game 2 of the NBA Finals at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The Heat tied the series, 1-1, with Game 3 Sunday night in Miami.
The Heat never trailed but nearly wasted a brilliant effort in the final minute, when Derek Fisher stole Dwyane Wade’s errant dribble and fed it to Kevin Durant for a 3-pointer to reduce the Heat’s lead to 2 with 37.5 seconds left.
James followed with a missed 3-pointer, giving the Thunder a chance to tie the score, but Durant drove the lane and missed a leaner in the final 10 seconds. Replays showed James’s left forearm made contact with Durant’s hip as he released the ball, but there was no call.
“I missed the shot, man,’’ Durant said. “I was just worrying about the shot [not a foul]. That’s a shot I shoot all the time. I just missed.’’
James finished with 32 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists and Wade responded with a solid effort (24 points) after a poor performance in Game 1. But the key contributor may have been swingman Shane Battier, who finished with 17 points and five 3-pointers, including a 27-foot bank shot that gave the Heat a 90-83 lead with 5:08 left.
A Chris Bosh streaking dunk put the Heat ahead by 7 with 53.8 seconds left, but they nearly botched the game with poor execution.
“It meant everything [to win],’’ said James, who added a difficult 15-foot bank at the 1:26 mark tpo give the Heat a 96-91 lead. “We had played too well in the first 36 minutes to let this one slip away from us. We knew they were going to keep fighting. We just wanted to make one more or two more plays than they made and come out with a victory.”
Durant finished with 32 points, 16 in the fourth quarter, but the Thunder struggled with consistency all night. Russell Westbrook, who dominated the second half of Game 1, was erratic, scoring 27 points on 10-for-26 shooting.
“We just tried to get him different looks,’’ Wade said. “Westbrook is a phenomenal player, unbelievable talent. He’s so quick and athletic. The best thing for us to do as much as possible is to try to keep him out of the paint so much. Just make him see our bodies a little bit. He’s going to make some but we’ll live with that instead of him getting into the paint all the time.’’
The Miami defense controlled the interior and forced Oklahoma City to launch 3-pointers - missing 17 of 26. Meanwhile, James Harden, who scored 17 first-half points to keep the Thunder within striking distance, managed just 4 second-half points.
The Heat led, 82-69, after a Bosh layup with 9:35 left but Durant led a 12-3 Oklahoma City run to make it a thrilling finish.
Before that, James tried to make sure the Thunder would not make one of their customary second-half runs by pounding the paint with post-ups and runners. Unlike Game 1, when James scored mostly from the perimeter, he forced the Thunder to send two defenders each time he caught the ball in the post.
James countered with his soft jumpers off the glass. He scored 12 points in the third period.
Battier hit a runner off a drive to give the Heat a 65-52 lead with 7:50 left in the third. Battier followed with his fourth 3-pointer nearly two minutes later for a 15-point lead as the Thunder’s up-tempo game could not get untracked.
Oklahoma City mustered just 4 fast-break points through three quarters as Westbrook forced the offensive action. Durant has often been accused of being too passive offensively and Thursday he was especially not aggressive. Plagued by foul trouble, Durant attempted just 13 shots through three periods, scoring a quiet 16 points as the Thunder trailed, 78-67, entering the fourth.
Trailing by 17 in the first quarter, the Thunder attempted to rally but the Heat continued to counter with points in the paint, especially from James, who repeatedly drove to the basket and made layups or free throws. With Durant picking up two early fouls, James feasted on the Oklahoma City defense.
Meanwhile, the Heat kept the Thunder from getting out on fast breaks. After scoring 24 fast-break points in Game 1, Oklahoma City recorded zero in the first half while the Heat collected 10 - 6 more than all of Game 1.
Serge Ibaka led a 10-2 run early in the second to reduce the Miami lead to 35-27 but the Heat stormed back with a 16-7 run, including 3-pointers by Battier and Mario Chalmers for a 51-34 lead at the 2:09 mark. Bosh, who roamed around the 3-point line in Game 1, was critical with his interior work Thursday, amassing a double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds) in the first half.
Unlike Game 1, when the Thunder made a critical run to end the first half, the Heat stifled any rallies, as James scored a layup and then two free throws to help Miami to a 55-43 lead at the half. Durant and Westbrook were a combined 5-for-19 shooting for 15 points in the first half while Harden had 17.
The Heat are a difficult team to beat when James and Wade are flowing offensively and the duo combined for 27 points in the first half.
As if they didn’t learn a lesson from their slow start in Game 1, the Thunder were inept again in the first quarter, missing 10 of their first 11 shots as the Heat raced to an 18-2 lead in the first seven minutes.
“Toughness lost the game, we didn’t come out with the toughness that we needed to come out with,’’ Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “When you get down 17, too many things have to happen well for you and perfect for you. But I give our guys credit that we did fight. That’s two games in a row, first six minutes down 10 or 12 points. We’ve got to come out better.’’