It didn’t matter that the Heat had more players with Finals experience than the Thunder — the previous visitors could all claim the same. And it didn’t matter that three-time league MVP LeBron James, with the surprising help of Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers, had built a 13-point first-half lead. By spotting those points, the Thunder simply made the victory more dramatic, the effects of the eventual ambush more deflating.
“You know, this is a tough series,” Durant said. “This level of basketball is the hardest we play, and we just want to take it slow. . . . It’s a long game, and every time our coach was just saying, ‘Play harder, play harder,’ and that’s what we did.”
In a series that has been billed as a championship chase between the two best players in the game, Durant struck first in his Finals debut, scoring 17 of his game-high 36 points in the fourth quarter to give his team a 1-0 lead in this best-of-seven series. He also outplayed James, who finished with 30 points but only had seven in the fourth period.
The relentless and at times reckless Westbrook added 27 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds, and contained his emotions after an erratic first half in which he missed 7 of 10 shots and picked up a technical foul after slapping the ball away from and exchanging a few words with Battier. He recovered well in the third period, when he channeled his passion and erupted for 12 points to give the Thunder its first lead of the game, 74-73, entering the fourth quarter.
“I know I could have played harder,” Westbrook said. “Our coaching staff and other guys on the team just emphasized once I started playing harder, everybody else will follow, and that’s my job.”
With the Thunder leading 78-74 with 9 minutes 35 seconds left in the game, Heat forward Chris Bosh missed a free throw and Durant grabbed the rebound. Over the next eight minutes, Durant and Westbrook combined to score 19 consecutive points for their team, with Durant accounting for 13 of them.
The barrage came shortly after Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha switched over to defend James, freeing Durant to focus on what he does best — score — while also flustering James. With Sefolosha creating problems for James, Coach Scott Brooks kept sixth man of the year James Harden on the bench and didn’t have to think twice.
“We love what Thabo does,” Brooks said. “He’s a tough-minded defender. He understands that he has to be able to guard, guard every possession like if it’s his last, and he does that.”
Nick Collison was actually the more valued reserve for the Thunder, as he contributed eight points, 10 rebounds and some much-needed interior defense. After James converted a three-point play to bring the Heat within 97-92, Durant fed Collison along the baseline for a dunk that put the game out of reach.
“I’m not trying to force anything,” Durant said. “For this whole playoffs, I’m just trying to play my game, be aggressive, and if I see a shot I have to take it. And if I see a pass I have to pass it.”
Miami found itself in an unusual position as the series began. For the first time since James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade made their all-star alliance in the summer of 2010, the behemoth from South Beach had never entered a playoff series as an underdog. But with Miami struggling to take out Indiana and the aging Boston Celtics and Bosh hardly at full strength after missing nine games this postseason with an abdominal strain, the Heat was free from mammoth expectations.
In his third Finals appearance, James didn’t have much assistance from Wade, who had 19 points but was hardly efficient as he missed 12 of his 19 shot attempts. Bosh had 10 points off the bench and Battier and Chalmers combined to score 29 points, but just six after halftime.
Oklahoma City, a small-market, one-pro-team town, has embraced the NBA from the time the New Orleans Hornets were forced to play here for two seasons after Hurricane Katrina. The arrival of the Thunder from Seattle four years ago has created a more impassioned love affair, with a hungry, young and electrifying team that has improved each season — and is now three wins claiming the Larry O’Brien trophy.
“First of all, those two guys are stars for a reason. You can’t stop them, you just try to limit them,” James said of Westbrook and Durant. Durant is “always aggressive. Anytime he’s on the floor. It doesn’t matter what court it is.”
But on one court in particular this postseason, Durant has been extra special, using the energy of his home arena to make a few more shots than everyone else.