The Miami Heat are going to feel good about this, about what happened here in the NBA’s loudest arena, about beating back the surge from Kevin Durant and turning this best-of-7 series into a best-of-5.
Yes, it’s all even after the Heat’s 100-96 victory in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, after they survived a fourth quarter that seemed to hang in the balance with every possession. And the conventional wisdom will tell you Miami should be thrilled about this and Oklahoma City should be crushed.
“We had a chance. We had a chance,” Durant said. “It’s tough to lose that one.”
But just as surely as LeBron James delivered this game, among the most clutch of his career, the Heat head home with one big win and an even bigger problem.
They have no clue how to put away the Thunder. None. And if they don’t figure out how to own the fourth quarter against a team that keeps charging at them no matter the score or circumstance, what happened last night at Chesapeake Energy Arena will look more like a fluke than a turning point.
“It’s probably going to be like this every single game, and that’s the beauty of competition at this level,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It doesn’t matter how you get there.”
That’s a convenient thing for Spoelstra to say, given the way the Heat got there, living on the ledge as Durant threatened to push them into the abyss.
But it’s going to matter if Miami wants to win this championship, and it’s going to matter in every single game going forward. Because the Heat weren’t just shaky trying to close out Game 2, they were lucky, so lucky that it’s hard to envision it happening three more times.
Make no mistake, Miami deserved this win. James, especially, deserved it with a 32-point, eight-rebound performance in which he made 12 of 12 free throws, shredding the notion he doesn’t want the ball in his hands with the game on the line. And the Heat needed every bit of what James gave them, all the way down to a pair of foul shots with 7.1 seconds left that ended Oklahoma City’s final push.
It was a spellbinding finish and a breathtaking game, the Heat desperate to run out the clock while Durant landed one haymaker after another. Almost singlehandedly, he took a game Miami had controlled all the way to the limit, slicing the Heat’s lead from 13 to 10, from eight to six, and eventually from five to two until Durant got the ball in his hands with 12.3 seconds left and a chance to tie.
“We kept giving ourselves an opportunity,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.
This time, the final opportunity went Miami’s direction as Durant’s leaning 7-footer from the baseline came up short and James got away with what looked like a foul.
But next time? That’s what the Heat should be worried about. Because for a game Miami led 18-2 to start, then 51-34 late in the first half, then 82-69 with 9:35 to go, this was far too close for comfort.
The Heat didn’t just control this game, they dominated it to an even greater degree than they did in Game 1 before Durant took over in the fourth quarter. And the difference between that game and this one?
James made free throws, Durant missed a makeable shot at the end and Shane Battier banked in an impossible-looking 3-pointer to beat the shot clock with 5:08 to go after Oklahoma City had cut the deficit to 87-83.
“This group has a resourcefulness, a resolve, a resiliency,” Spoelstra said. “There are four or five plays [that decide a game], and you have to make those plays.”
It was so much harder than it needed to be, though, and that has a cumulative effect, especially with a team as fragile as the Heat. Last year, Miami outplayed the Mavericks for most of Games 2 and 4 but lost the fourth quarter both times and eventually lost the series.
Just as it was last year with Dirk Nowitzki playing the best basketball of his life, it’s always going to be difficult to close out games with an assassin like Durant on the other side, able to score in bunches and generate his own momentum.
But many of the Heat’s problems in the fourth quarter were self-inflicted, from an offense that lost its aggressiveness and got stagnant on key possessions to three turnovers in the final 150 seconds that led directly to five points, including Durant’s 3-pointer in transition that made it 98-96 with 37.5 seconds left.
“Our goal was to come here and get one,” Dwyane Wade said. “We felt we had opportunities in Game 1 to win. They played better than us, but we didn’t let that opportunity slip away tonight. We seized the moment.”
They did, barely, and that’s enough for now. But rest assured, it won’t be next time, much less the three they need to put the Thunder away for good.