Heat appear poised for NBA title after Game 4
MIAMI — LeBron James hasn't been this close to a championship since his Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary team beat Kettering Alter on March 22, 2003, for the Ohio Division II title.
The Miami Heat haven't been this near a title since exactly six years ago Wednesday, when they defeated Dallas in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to wrap up the 2006 crown.
Put them both together, and Thursday's Game 5 of the NBA Finals has the makings of being a very special evening in South Florida.
Such a night wouldn't have been possible had the Heat not beaten Oklahoma City 104-98 on Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena by fighting back from a 17-point first-half deficit and by playing two of the final five minutes without James, stricken by cramps in his left quad. But was there any doubt Miami would claw back and win to take a 3-1 Finals lead?
Throughout these playoffs, the Heat have battled through adversity. It only seemed appropriate they had to do it again.
"Right now, we feel that any game we play, no matter what the score is, no matter what the situation is, no matter who's on the floor, we're confident that we can win the ballgame," Miami guard Dwyane Wade said.
The Heat battled back in the Eastern Conference semifinals after trailing 2-1 and facing a road game against Indiana. They survived a situation more desperate when they trailed Boston 3-2 in the East finals and faced elimination on the road.
They played nine games during the above two series without forward Chris Bosh, sidelined by an abdominal strain. And Tuesday, it was James who couldn't walk and had to be helped off the court with 5:15 remaining and the Heat leading 92-90.
With 4:05 left and the Heat having fallen behind 94-92, James limped back onto the court to the roar of the crowd. He soon did his best Willis Reed impression to give the Heat the lead for good at 97-94 on a straightaway 3-pointer with 2:51 left.
With 55.5 seconds remaining, James, who had a near triple-double with 26 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, could play no more. Even though James didn't want to come out, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said "it got to a point that it was four-on-five." The lead was 99-96 at the time, and the Heat were able to hold on for the victory.
"We're a complete team," James said after watching much-maligned guard Mario Chalmers score 25 points, including Miami's last five points after James had left the game for good. "A lot of people don't understand that about our team, and they always just focus on myself or D-Wade or (Bosh)."
Actually, people mostly focus on James. He didn't win an NBA title in his first eight seasons, stumbling twice in previous Finals appearances.
But this looks finally to be his year. No team ever has come back from a 3-1 deficit to win in the Finals. And don't expect the young Thunder, who have wilted under pressure against Miami, to be the first.
"Of course, it's there to think about," James said about being on the brink of his first ring. "But I'm not taking our preparation for Game 5 for granted. . . . If we come out with the mindset that we've come out with during the playoffs, we're going to give ourselves a good chance to win. That's all we can ask for."
If the Heat, who lost the first game against the Thunder, simply pretend they're trailing in the series, it should be no sweat. The Heat then should be hoisting the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy for the second time in seven seasons.
The last time the Heat won it all, much of America was rooting for them. The pesky underdogs won four straight games after trailing the Mavericks 2-0 at a time Dallas' Mark Cuban was picking up fines regularly and was perhaps the NBA's most disliked owner.
In last year's Finals, Cuban was the beloved figure compared to the hated Heat, who in summer 2010 brought in free agents James and Bosh to join Wade. The Mavericks won the series 4-2.
But that loss has made the Heat a stronger team. It was the first thing Wade talked about after Tuesday's win.
"This team, we had to go through something to get to this point that we are resilient, and that's going through a heartbreaking loss in the Finals last year," said Wade, who scored 25 points. "Really having to go back and gut-check ourselves. But you've got to crawl before you walk."
Actually, James really couldn't walk at the end of Tuesday's game. The first time he went to the bench, he had to be carried off the court by reserves Juwan Howard and Mike Miller.
But James had to have won over some admirers with his gutty return to the game. And when James couldn't keep going, thanks to Chalmers' big night, the Heat got some additional believers that there is more to this team than the Big Three.
"I didn't fight anything at that point," James said about being told he couldn't play the final 55.5 seconds even after getting some liquids in him. "I just put the faith in my teammates, which I understand. I've got a lot of faith in them. . . . But I'll be ready for Game 5, and hopefully I can stay hydrated where it doesn't happen again."
That James already was talking how he expects to be fine for Game 5 can't be good news for the Thunder, who wasted 71 combined points from stars Russell Westbrook (a career playoff-high 43) and Kevin Durant (28) because nobody else got more than eight. It also didn't help matters that Westbrook marred the game of his life by committing the boneheaded play of the series.
With Oklahoma City trailing 101-98 with 17.3 seconds left in the game and five seconds on the shot clock, a jump ball landed in the hands of Chalmers on the edge of the court. He apparently had nowhere to go, but Westbrook inexplicably fouled him.
"It was just a miscommunication on my part," said Westbrook, who only could watch as Chalmers hit two free throws to all but lock up the game.
One thinks Westbrook will get the message that the Thunder's season is over if they don't win Thursday at AmericanAirlines Arena. But don't expect there to be much relaxation from the Heat, who certainly don't want to go back to Oklahoma City's rowdy arena for possible Games 6 and 7.
"Calm and focused," Bosh said after the game about how the team will approach its first chance to close out the series. "We're thinking about Game 5 right now. . . . We know it's not over until it's over, so we have to finish this job that we started. It's going to be another very, very tough game on Thursday and, if we're going to win it, we have to earn it."
The way they've battled in these playoffs, the Heat already have earned it. Unless the Thunder make the most stunning comeback in NBA history, James will have his first NBA title.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson