OKLAHOMA CITY — From the time he arrived on South Beach, LeBron James has had his mental toughness in close games questioned to the point that his failings were chronicled as some sort of character flaw.
Throughout this postseason, Dwyane Wade’s inconsistent play has raised concerns about his health and ability to return to his successful, slashing form of the past. And since he returned from an abdominal strain, Chris Bosh has taken so many jumpers that many wondered if he was too tentative to provide the interior presence the Miami Heat sorely needs to win a championship.
The doubts came down like a storm as James, Wade and Bosh arrived at Chesepeake Energy Arena for Game 2 of the NBA Finals. But by the time the Heat boarded a flight back home to Miami, its all-star trio had forcefully trounced the negative perceptions — for one night at least — and escaped with a hard fought, 100-96 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“We don’t feel lucky,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Everything we’ve been through has shown that this group has a resourcefulness, a resolve, a resiliency. We’re all a very stubborn group.”
James scored 32 points, a career high in the Finals, and provided the finishing touches — a difficult bank shot over Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha, stout defense as Kevin Durant attempted a potential tying jumper and two clinching free throws — on a win that evened the best-of-seven series at a game apiece. Miami became the first team to win in Oklahoma City this postseason. Game 3 is Sunday night at American Airlines Arena.
“I mean, I’m a confident guy,” said James, who connected on all 12 of his free throw attempts. “On a big stage like this, in a big game like this, every point counts, every point matters. I’m happy that I was able to go up there and make a few plays. Go up there and make my free throws. We needed it. We needed every point.”
After answering questions the day before about possibly succumbing to Father Time, the 30-year-old Wade arrived at the arena more than three hours before tip-off, working himself into a lather shooting jumpers. He would finish the game with 24 points, including seven in the fourth quarter.
“I’m not sensitive,” Wade said of the criticism. “I totally understand how the world works. I get it. You know, it’s fine. I can take it. Maybe I’ll get defensive at times. We all do, we’re human. But just know that I’m always going to keep coming back until I don’t play this game no more.”
Spoelstra made the first major adjustment of the series, putting Bosh back in the lineup for the first time since he crumpled to the floor with an abdominal strain in Game 1 of Miami’s second-round series against Indiana. The injury forced Bosh to miss nine games, and he had come off the bench in the previous four games since returning.
The Heat needed an interior presence that Udonis Haslem had largely failed to provide, and Bosh delivered 16 points and a playoff-career-high 15 rebounds. Afterward he said: “It was a big game for us, and I kind of put it in my mind that I knew that I had to really give the effort that I had been giving before, whether I was ready or not.”
With less than a minute left, Wade drove inside, attracted the defense then delivered a bounce pass to Bosh, who dunked to give the Heat a 98-91 lead. The pair celebrated, but the game was hardly over. The Thunder had already rallied back from a 17-point deficit to put the game in suspense and had another run in them. Durant made a quick driving layup and then madness ensued.
Wade lost the ball on the dribble, then Russell Westbrook found Durant for a three-pointer that brought the Thunder within 98-96 with 37.5 seconds remaining.
Durant matched James with 32 points, including 16 in the fourth quarter, despite playing the final 10 minutes of the game with five fouls. But after James missed a pull-up three-pointer, the Thunder worked the ball to Durant in the low block, on the left side of the basket. Durant backed down James, then elevated for a turnaround jumper. James appeared to slap Durant on his right thigh, knocking Durant off just enough to miss a short baseline jumper.
“I think I shot a good shot. That’s a shot I shoot all the time. I just missed,” Durant said, refusing to claim that he was fouled. “I missed the shot, man.”
Durant was more upset with how the Thunder started the game, missing 10 of its first 11 shots and falling behind 18-2. The Heat recorded the first wire-to-wire Finals win since San Antonio defeated Detroit in Game 2 in 2005.
“I love the way we came back and fought,” Thunder Coach Scott Brooks said, “but it’s tough to come back from 17 points. When you get down 17, too many things have to happen well for you and perfect for you. We’ve got to come out better.”
Oklahoma City, which rallied from a 13-point hole to win Game 1, trailed 82-69 in Game 2 when Bosh made two free throws with 9 minutes 35 seconds remaining. Durant responded with a three-pointer, then grabbed a rebound, dribbled up the floor and dunked over Shane Battier. Westbrook (27 points, eight rebounds, seven assists) completed a 12-3 run when he converted a three-point play to cut the deficit to 85-81. Oklahoma City trailed 94-91 after Westbrook rebounded a Durant miss and laid in the ball, but James answered by rising over Sefolosha and hitting a bank shot to put the Heat ahead by five.
“We want to make enough plays to win basketball games,” James said. “Not to answer any questions about what people have to say about us.”