The Miami Heat came into the NBA Finals with a less than sterling free throw shooting reputation, but in Sunday night's game three it was their effectiveness at the line that sealed a 91-85 win against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Playing their first game of the Finals at American Airlines Arena, Miami survived a back-and-forth battle with Oklahoma City to take a 2-1 series lead with a chance to clinch a title during their home stand. The game was decided in its closing minutes, when the Heat responded to late game pressure by stepping up on defense, playing smart basketball and making crucial free throws while exploiting the Thunder's inexperience.
Miami's LeBron James, as he has been for much of the postseason, was the player of the game, scoring 29 points and 14 rebounds in a game that left him two wins away from his elusive first ring. As he has been doing since his 45 points performance in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics, James has been defying his reputation as a fourth quarter disappearing artist.
James himself has acknowledged that he's playing differently now than he did during last year's Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, the series that cemented the stereotype he's currently attempting to shatter: "I told you guys, last year I didn't make enough game-changing plays, and that's what I kind of pride myself on. I didn't do that last year in the Finals. I'm just trying to make game-changing plays, and whatever it takes for our team to win, just trying to step up in key moments and be there for my teammates."
James's sidekick, and he's very much been his sidekick this postseason, Dwyane Wade had his second straight excellent game following his disappointing game one performance, scoring 25 points along with 7 rebounds and 7 assists. If James has been motivated by those who questioned how clutch he could be, Wade certainly could be motivated by critics who wondered if Wade, who is now on the wrong side of 30, was no longer the player he once was. Wade has certainly looked more like his 2006 form the last two games.
Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the court, Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant scored 25 points while the erratic Russell Westbrook was good for 19. Unfortunately for the Thunder, Durant picked up five fouls putting him on the bench for key stretches in the second half. In fact, the officiating did the Thunder very few favors in a game that was basically lost on the free throw line: the Miami Heat were 31-for-35 in free throw attempts while the Thunder, the best free throw shooting team in the league, were only 15-24.
Not that Oklahoma City made it easy for their Floridian counterparts. The Heat thoroughly outplayed the Thunder throughout the entire first half but found themselves only up by a single point by halftime. The Thunder, who have made excellent second half adjustments throughout these playoffs, fought back in the third quarter to take a ten point lead and had a chance to take over the game until they made two bad fouls to let the Heat back into the game. In back-to-back Heat possessions, the Thunder fouled Shane Battier and then James Jones in the act of shooting behind the three-point line. These two lazy fouls gifted the Heat six points as both Jones and Battier made their free throws. Now down only four, the Heat were able to regain the lead by the start of the fourth quarter.
Although their fourth quarter lead was as large as seven at times, the Heat were only up by one point with 1:30 left in the game. That's when they closed the door. James hit three out of his four free throws, Wade made two of his own and the team forced the Thunder into a cavalcade of missed shots and mistakes. Although the Heat made more than their share of turnovers, including nine in the fourth quarter, when the game was on the line they capitalized on the mistakes of their younger opponents and didn't allow them to score a single point in the game's last minute and a half. In a series between two teams fairly evenly matched as far as talent, many gave Oklahoma City the edge because of their youth and fresher legs. Sunday night, Miami proved that being the older, more experienced team had its own advantages, and now they're just two more similar lessons away from a title.
Game four is in Miami on Tuesday.
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