MIAMI — It wasn’t just another LeBron-at-the-line adventure in the final 16 seconds, whether he could make at least 1 of 2 free throws to make this a two-possession game. Or Thabo Sefolosha inexplicably throwing away a pass seconds later, killing Oklahoma City’s last real chance.
For so many unsightly minutes Sunday night, they slogged through an eyesore of a basketball game. Dwyane Wade shot an air ball in the first half and Miami made just three jump shots outside the key through 24 minutes. The Thunder headed into the final minutes of Game 3 of the NBA Finals having missed nine free throws and ended the third quarter having made less than 38 percent of its shots.
The great mano-a-mano duel between LeBron James and Kevin Durant was put on hold. This star-power series was reduced to who chipped the most paint off the rim and who would work harder and longer to cover their sudden disappearance of skill.
This was the night glam became grit at the NBA Finals, the night the elbow grease that used to define the Miami Heat, oh, more than a decade ago, surfaced. In a show of toughness and resilience, the Heat outworked Oklahoma City for a 91-85 victory and a 2-1 series lead before 20,000 or so in white T-shirts who walked happily into the South Beach night knowing LeBron and Wade and their teammates could be called a lot of things, but “soft” was not one of them.
Too often when its stars don’t make jump shots, don’t waltz out to a lead at home, the Heat get in trouble. But Miami rebounded, grabbed second shots, defended, did all the things Pat Riley teams used to do in Los Angeles, New York and Miami, circa 1990s.
The patriarch of the franchise sat across from the Miami bench at American Airlines Arena, maybe four rows back, taking in his 11th NBA Finals as either a coach or an executive. Riley, the Heat’s president, had to be encouraged about the direction of these Finals three games in.
Riley teams always had cornered the toughness market. Even when their skill players weren’t going well, somehow enough will and perseverance camouflaged any and all of the poor execution on offense.
Sunday night, this Heat team suddenly morphed into one of those old Riley teams, only coached by Erik Spoelstra, a Riley disciple who worked his way from a video coordinator in the organization in the 1990s and any day now might get credit for a win for the first time in his career. (I don’t know about you, but if I hear one more “Spo’s gotta go” after each Heat loss and nothing but “Wade and LeBron did it again” after each Heat victory, I’m going to officially campaign for Spoelstra to win NBA Coach of the Year next season so he will at least have one person with a pen in his corner.)
“I think we only shot 30 percent, but we built up some toughness now that we can find different ways, resourcefulness, to win,” Spoelstra said afterward. “And we had to because we didn’t have a lot of great offensive possessions in the second half, but we had enough stops, enough timely scores, still able to get some free throws down the stretch, to find a way to grind a win.”
Miami looked like toast midway through the third quarter but refused to give in to a very determined Thunder squad that had not lost two games in a row in these playoffs since San Antonio knocked them off in Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference finals.
This was the Thunder’s game until Wade did something an old vet struggling from the perimeter needs to get back on track.
Noticing Durant was on him — knowing that Durant already had three fouls — he drove to the rim and forced Oklahoma City’s best player to pick up his fourth foul with 5 minutes 41 seconds left in the third and the Thunder ahead 60-53.
Without Durant out, chaos reigned in the form of Wild, Wild Russell Westbrook. He took a bad shot, committed an offensive foul and threw away a pass in the lane because he does what Westbrook does: Gets too excited and forgets to value possessions when his team is ahead.
Trailing 64-54 late in the third, the Heat went on a 17-3 run. It marked the sixth time this postseason Miami has come back from a double-digit deficit to win. For all the film-at-11 dunks, Miami is the first team the Thunder has faced with a top-five defense. And after that run, the Heat dug in and pulled it out.
The Heat has heart. What a concept, no? It’s something that used to be taken for granted with Pat Riley at the helm and now it appears to be in vogue in South Beach again.
It’s crazy to think that Sunday night was the 18th anniversary the night O.J. led the nation on a car chase while the Knicks were grinding out a 91-84 victory in Game 5 of the NBA Finals against Houston. The coach of that defensive-laden Knicks team is now the president of an organization still playing the same nails D in June.
Change the faces, but the Riley Way still largely remains the same.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.