Thunder-Heat Preview

LeBron James arrived for practice Monday wearing lime-green

sneakers, a highly fluorescent shade.

It was the fashion statement du jour for the league’s three-time

MVP, much like the eyeglass frames he’s been sporting after games

throughout this postseason. But those sneakers probably would have

remained tucked away in the drawer beneath his locker during last

year’s NBA Finals, since very little about James’ game would be

considered glowing or luminous during those two weeks.

Different year, different story.

For the second straight season, the Miami Heat hold a 2-1 lead

in the NBA Finals. There’s a glaring difference this time around –

that being James is playing at the top of his game. And he’ll try

to help the Heat move within one win of a championship on Tuesday

night, when Miami plays host to the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 4

of this title series.

”We’re a totally different team than we was last year when we

was up 2-1,” James said Monday. ”We’re a totally different team.

We understand what it takes to win, we’ve used that motivation, and

we will continue to use that motivation. But last year is last

year, and we’re not going into a Game 4 on someone else’s floor.

We’re going into a Game 4 on our floor with a lot of experience in

this type of situation. We’ll be ready. We love the

challenge.”

Miami lost Game 4 in Dallas last year, the start of a three-game

slide that ended with the Mavericks hoisting the title trophy.

So the Thunder know a 2-1 deficit in a series is hardly

insurmountable, even though the home-court roles are reversed this

time around. And if Oklahoma City needed more proof, all the

Thunder need do is remember the Western Conference finals when they

lost the first two games to San Antonio, becoming the 19th and 20th

entries on the Spurs’ incredible winning streak. The Spurs didn’t

win another game the rest of the way.

”We were down 2-0 against San Antonio and everybody thought the

series was over,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. ”But I know

our guys, they’re very competitive, they’re very resilient. They’ve

always showed that type of effort every game, and we’ve always been

a great bounce-back team. I thought last night was a great

bounce-back last night. It’s unfortunate we didn’t make a couple

plays, and uncharacteristic, also.”

Uncharacteristic. That would also be a fine word to describe how

James played in the finals last season.

He freely acknowledges that he ”didn’t make enough plays”

against the Mavericks a year ago, and the numbers – 17.8 points,

7.2 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game – back that up, as do his

well-chronicled fourth quarter struggles in that series. So far in

this year’s finals, James is averaging 30.3 points, 10.3 rebounds

and 4 assists, and in the final minutes of Miami’s two wins in the

series he’s done his part to slam the door on the Thunder.

”He’s been aggressive. He’s an aggressive player,” Thunder

guard James Harden said. ”He’s been aggressive all year, all

postseason. He’s tall, strong, and physical. He’s a tough matchup.

It takes five guys to really lock down on their offense because

they’re a very offensive team especially with LeBron and (Dwyane)

Wade.”

James is shooting 46 percent in the series, not even close to

the 57 percent clip Kevin Durant is putting up for Oklahoma City.

But here’s maybe one piece of proof to support that aggression

notion Harden was speaking of – James is 25 for 29 from the foul

line in the three games, while Durant is just 14 for 19 so far in

the series.

James has done much of his work near the rim in these finals.

But while it wasn’t his most memorable shot, perhaps the biggest

one he hit all night in Miami’s Game 3 victory was a 3-pointer late

in the third quarter, one of just five shots that the Heat made

from outside the paint in that game. That shot put Miami up

entering the fourth, and seemed to extend the Thunder defense just

enough to allow James, Wade and Chris Bosh to create more in the

lane late.

”The biggest evolution of great players is they always stay in

constant state of being uncomfortable,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra

said. ”They don’t stay satisfied. And LeBron every summer has

added something to his game. I’ve seen it when I’ve followed him

from afar, and now that I’ve gotten to know him he’s added two,

three, four different elements now to his game, the well-documented

one of the post-up game, which we needed. But he continues to try

to improve and stay uncomfortable. I think that’s a sign of

greatness.”

Another sign of greatness? Rings.

James’ first is just two wins away, again. And yes, the memories

of what went wrong in 2011 still drive Miami now.

”Experience don’t guarantee you anything,” Wade said. ”It

just lets you know I’ve been here before. That doesn’t mean it’s

going to be successful for you. So for us we’ve got to continue …

to make the game that we’re in, the moment that we’re in the

biggest moment and the biggest game and not look back and not look

forward too much. Obviously the team that was here that lost the

championship last year, that burning sensation is going to be

inside of us until we change that.”

A year ago, the talk was how James shied away from the biggest

moments, the brightest moments.

It’s not happening now. Miami overcame a 10-point deficit in the

third quarter of Game 3, becoming the first team in these playoffs

to dig out of that large a second-half hole against the Thunder.

James had eight points and four rebounds in the fourth quarter – no

Thunder player had more than four points or two rebounds in those

last 12 minutes.

Not pretty, but more than good enough to put the Heat back in

the spot where last year’s finals went awry.

”I don’t give a damn how we get four,” James said. ”We can

win 32-31. It doesn’t matter to me. We can win any type of game. We

can win a gritty game, a high-paced game, but we take every game as

its own. … And at the end of the day, if we play to our identity

like Spo always preaches to us, then we’ll give ourselves a good

chance to win. Yeah, I don’t care how we get four.”

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