MIAMI — LeBron James and the Heat remember the pain from a year ago.
They needed two wins for a title and never got another, their superstar player coming up small in the biggest moments — a finals failure for which James has accepted the blame.
He seems determined not to let it happen again.
James had 29 points and 14 rebounds, and the Miami Heat took a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals with a 91-85 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday night. Dwyane Wade had 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists for the Heat, who were in this same position through three games last year, then didn’t win again against the Dallas Mavericks.
“We carry that pain with us,” the Heat’s Chris Bosh said. “We think about it every day and that really helps us to succeed in this series.”
James’ poor performance was part of the problem then, but he seems on top of his game this time. His 3-pointer sent the Heat to the fourth quarter with the lead, and he scored five straight Miami points when the Heat were building just enough cushion to hold off another late flurry by the Thunder.
“Big time player makes big time plays on the big stage,” Heat reserve James Jones said.
Game 4 is Tuesday night.
Kevin Durant had 25 points for the Thunder, but picked up his fourth foul in the third quarter and had to go to the bench when they had seemed to have control of the game.
“It was frustrating,” Durant said. “Of course we had a good lead and they came back and made some shots. We fouled shooters on the 3-point line twice. It’s a tough break for us, man. You know, I hate sitting on the bench, especially with fouls.”
The Heat survived their own fourth-quarter sloppiness — nine turnovers — by getting enough big plays from their Big Three.
James scored 30 and 32 points in the first two games, his two best finals performances. He fell just shy of another 30-point effort but reached his 20 points for the 20th time this postseason, two shy of Wade’s franchise record set in 2006.
Gone is the player who seemed so tentative down the stretch last year in his second finals failure. He’s constantly on the attack now, all while defending Durant in key situations.
“He was great. He’s been great for us all playoffs,” Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. “I don’t know if he looks up at the clock or scoresheet, but he knows when we need him to make big plays and come through for us, and he comes through.”
Bosh had 10 points and 11 rebounds for the Heat, who can win a second title by winning the next two games at home. That’s what they did in 2006, one of just two home teams to sweep the middle three games in the 2-3-2 format.
They seemed out of it when Oklahoma City opened a 10-point lead midway through the third. But Durant had just gone out with 5:41 left on Wade’s baseline drive, though there appeared to be little or no contact. Thunder coach Scott Brooks decided to sit Russell Westbrook with him, and the Heat charged into the lead by the end of the period.
Westbrook looked angry going to the bench, but denied any frustration afterward.
“Nah, man. I mean, coach’s decision,” Westbrook said. “Got to live with it.”
The Thunder had grabbed their last lead at 77-76 on James Harden’s basket with 7:32 left. James answered with two free throws about 20 seconds later, and the teams would trade turnovers and stops over the next couple of tense minutes.
Wade then converted a three-point play, and another minute went by before James powered to the basket, Durant trying to get in position to draw a charge but watching helplessly as he picked up his fifth foul. James made the free throw for an 84-77 advantage with 3:47 to play.
After another basket by James, the Thunder had one last burst — haven’t they always in this series? — ripping off six straight points to get within one before Bosh made a pair of free throws with 1:19 to play. Durant missed badly on a wild shot attempt, and the Thunder missed another chance when Westbrook was off from behind the arc.
James hit a free throw for a four-point lead with 16 seconds to go and Wade added two to close it out.
“It’s very hard,” James said. “Both teams are very active defensively and both teams make it hard on one another in the half court so when you get stops you try to get early offense, it always helps and we were able to do that a little bit.”
The Thunder were just 4 of 18 on 3-pointers and hit only 15 of 24 free throws, unusually awful numbers for one of the league’s best offensive teams. Harden, the Sixth Man of the Year, shot 2 of 10 for his nine points. Westbrook finished with 19 points.
After a split of the first two games, the series made its way from Oklahoma City, where fans in blue shirts filled every seat, to Miami, where white shirts hung on empty chairs just minutes before the tip. The late arrivals in Oklahoma City had been the Thunder players, who fell into big early deficits and acknowledged some first-time finals jitters in Game 1. Brooks said he heard the cries to change his starting lineup but said it never crossed his mind.
The Thunder quickly fell behind 10-4 in this one after spotting the Heat a 13-point lead in Game 1 and getting clubbed into an 18-2 hole in the opening minutes of Game 2. They didn’t let things get any worse this time, playing the Heat even from there and trailing 26-20 after one. James, Wade and Bosh combined for Miami’s first 18 points.
James and Wade had some dazzling drives in the second and Shane Battier got free for a pair of 3-pointers in the final 2 minutes, but the Thunder stayed with them the entire way, briefly holding a three-point lead. Westbrook’s 3-pointer with 2.3 seconds left cut Miami’s lead to 47-46.
Oklahoma City started to take control with a 14-2 run early in the third. Durant had the first four points, Westbrook fooled the Heat with a fake behind the back pass before in for a layup, then Durant leaped over James for a follow dunk before nailing a jumper for a 60-51 lead with 6:55 left in the period.
But it was barely a minute later when he drew his fourth foul. The Thunder pushed the lead to 10 on Derek Fisher’s four-point play, but the Heat got right back in it when Battier and then Jones made all six free throws after being fouled behind the arc.
Brooks also pulled Westbrook with 5 minutes left and left him out the remainder of the period, leaving the Thunder without their two best players as they tried to hang onto the lead.
The Heat scored the final seven of the period, Wade making a turnaround jumper and two free throws before setting up James for a 3-pointer that made it 69-67 headed to the final quarter.
Notes: Battier had made at least four 3-pointers in three straight games. The last player to make four in four consecutive postseason games was Orlando’s Dennis Scott in 1995. … Brooks, joking Sunday morning about all the calls to change his lineup: “It’s hard to take all the advice,” he said. “I’m only allowed three bench assistant coaches.”
NBA NOTEBOOK: Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks can’t cite one specific reason why slow first quarters have been a trend for his team in the playoffs.
He doesn’t seem overly worked up about it, either.
The way Brooks sees it, every team has certain points in a game — especially in the NBA Finals — where things aren’t going to go well. Whether they come in the first few minutes or the last few minutes, it all counts about the same.
“It’s important to have a good start and a good finish,” Brooks said. “Every fight is important. You can’t just say we’re going to knock the guy out in the final round. You have to punch him in the first round just as many times in the last round. We have to fight every possession and every round.”
ANTHEM SINGER: Julia Dale is in her second NBA Finals.
The native of nearby Davie sang the national anthem at one game in the Miami-Dallas final series in 2011, and has been with the Heat for various regular season games. She so impressed Heat management and the crowd that the team decided to lock her services up for the entire playoff run before this postseason began.
“We love her,” said Michael McCullough, the team’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer.
She’s rapidly become a crowd favorite in Miami, and many roar when she ends the song with a curtsy. She has also performed at many other sporting events in South Florida.
“I do get a little nervous, but it’s more exciting than anything,” Dale said. “It’s such a great experience and I’m so happy to be here.”
Her favorite player? Dwyane Wade. “He’s awesome,” she said.
And no, she doesn’t play basketball, even though she loves the game.
“I’m really short, so I’d be super bad at it, but it’s so fun to watch,” she said.
THE 2-3-2 FORMAT: The team hosting the middle three games in the 2-3-2 format of the NBA Finals might not have as big as advantage as some would think.
Only two teams — the 2004 Detroit Pistons and the 2006 Miami Heat — have swept all three of those games at home since the NBA went to the 2-3-2 format. More teams — three, the 1990 Pistons, 1991 Chicago Bulls and 2001 Los Angeles Lakers — have actually gone on the road to sweep all three of those games.
Ask both the Heat and the Thunder, though, and it becomes clear that they didn’t enter the three games in Miami expecting the series to be decided on Thursday night after Game 5.
“You can’t play all three games at once,” Thunder guard James Harden said.
Added Heat coach Erik Spoelstra: “I know there’s a lot of talk that we don’t have to go back there, that we control our own destiny and all that. That’s kind of dangerous if you get too far ahead of yourself.”
HASLEM’S HOME: Udonis Haslem played his high school games at Miami High, just a couple miles from AmericanAirlines Arena. His high school gym has been around for about 80 years, and it’s getting refurbished and modernized.
Haslem still loves his school — but hates the idea of the gym being made more comfortable for opponents.
“I don’t like it. It’s going to have air conditioning now,” Haslem said. “I know it was needed to improve the school but when the gym didn’t have air conditioning it was like our sixth man.”
IN MEMORIAM: On the back of the credentials issued to the hundreds of reporters covering this year’s NBAFinals are five photos of people who covered the league and died in the past year.
Nick Charles was CNN’s first sports anchor, Lou Capozzola was a longtime photographer for Sports Illustrated, Jim Irwin was a former broadcaster of Milwaukee Bucks games, Lacy Banks covered the NBA for the Chicago Sun Times, and Jim Huber spent about three decades working for Turner Broadcasting.
The league placed a photo of each on the back of the finals credential, with the simple headline “In Memoriam.”