MIAMI – LeBron James had controlled this night as he's controlled most of these NBA Finals, and as he knelt on the sideline watching the game – and maybe even his best chance at winning his elusive NBA title – slip away, he vowed one thing: No more. James had limped off the court moments earlier with leg cramps and now he limped back on it. Not this night, not this year. Not again.
James raised up and buried a 3-pointer, and the Miami Heat suddenly had new life. It was an improbable shot, given James' condition, and a necessary one, helping the Heat turn back the Oklahoma City Thunder 104-98 Tuesday night and move within a single victory of the championship.
James would have to hobble off again in the game's tense final minute, but he left with a near triple-double: 26 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds. With Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers each scoring 25, it was enough for the Heat to overcome an epic performance by Russell Westbrook, whose 43 points came on the 24-year anniversary Isiah Thomas scored 43 in the Detroit Pistons' Game 6 Finals loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
James briefly left tied after hitting the court hard on his left side. The cramps had him twisting in pain on the sideline as Miami's training staff tended to him, but he returned after the Thunder took the lead.
"Basically your leg just shuts down," James said, "and there's nothing you can do about it."
James left for good with 55.5 seconds left. Chalmers, who has struggled throughout the series, helped save the Heat, driving for a layup and and making three of four free throws in the final 45 seconds.
"Coach [Erik Spoelstra] said earlier, 'Keep believing in Mario because he's due, he's due for a big game,' and he came through for us,"Wade said.
No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals under the 2-3-2 format. The Thunder's only hope is to win Game 5 on Thursday and send the series back to Oklahoma City.
After sweeping the defending champion Dallas Mavericks in the first round, after beating Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers in five games, after winning four straight games against the San Antonio Spurs – and after winning the first game of these Finals – the Thunder are now on the verge of having their championship dreams die with four consecutive losses.
The Thunder's youthfulness and inexperience have been on display the past three games, and even during days in between. James has been the best player in this series, but Serge Ibaka thought it was wise to taunt him anyway, declaring before Game 4 that James "is not a good defender." James, widely regarded as one of the league's best perimeter defenders, dismissed the comment as "stupid."
That lack of savvy even showed in the final seconds when Westbrook unnecessarily fouled Chalmers after the Thunder lost a jump ball with 13.8 seconds left and trailing 101-98. Miami had less than five seconds left on the shot clock to shoot after winning possession. Chalmers hit both free throws to ice the game.
"Just a miscommunication on my part," Westbrook said.
These Finals were billed as a matchup between the game's two most talented trios: James, Wade and Chris Bosh versus Kevin Durant, Westbrook and James Harden. The Thunder, however, have played with only a dynamic duo. Harden has been ineffective for much of the series, and he again contributed little in Game 4. He had a chance to put the Thunder ahead in the fourth quarter, but missed a lay-in – one possession after clanging a 3-pointer.
Put on their heels to start each of first three games, the Thunder made good on their vow to come out attacking, no one more so than Westbrook. His game had been dissected and criticized for much of the series – including one pointed critique from Magic Johnson – but Westbrook never thought about toning down his aggressiveness. He drove to the basket on the Thunder's first possession and never slowed down, peppering the Heat with pull-up jump shots.
If the Thunder were going to lose a third straight game, Westbrook wasn't going to stand by while it happened. He scored 18 points in the first half while taking 15 shots.
With Westbrook and Durant both on the attack, the Thunder surged to a 17-point lead late in the first quarter. The Heat calmly withstood the flurry thanks to some unexpected help from their role players. Rookie guard Norris Cole had played sparingly in this postseason, but helped revive the Heat in Game 4. His 3-pointer late in the opening quarter was the first shot in a stunning run that saw Miami score 16 unanswered points and eventually wipe out the Thunder's lead.
James continued to masterfully orchestrate Miami's offense, showing off his do-everything skills in the first half with 10 points, eight assists and six rebounds. Bosh went to the floor to corral a rebound, then flexed and screamed and preened to the crowd, perhaps hoping to incite his teammates as much as his fans. By then, the Heat had stolen all the game's momentum anyway.
Even as the Thunder continued to keep pace in the early minutes of the third quarter, it felt as if they were only bailing water, waiting for the next attack from James and the Heat to sink them. Westbrook didn't care. He continued to attack, determined to keep Miami from pulling too far ahead.
"Frustrating to lose like that; it was frustrating," Durant said. "But we're going to keep fighting, man."
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