Thunder can't match the resolve or hunger of LeBron James and the Heat

Adrian WojnarowskiThe Vertical

MIAMI – The championship is waiting for LeBron James now, within his grasp, a confluence borne of configuring his mind and body with the scattered state of these Oklahoma City Thunder. He thinks about those Dallas Mavericks and the NBA Finals, the way the moment made him reluctant, afraid, and something’s hardened with him. He doesn’t cower. He doesn’t scare. Finally, LeBron James is coming.

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All these mistakes, all these regrettable moments, belong to someone else now. James pushes for his destiny, two victories away, and a collapse now would be the most colossal of all. He is too wise to lose to the Thunder. He’s too great. Beyond James’ genius, Oklahoma City gave Miami Game 3 on Sunday night, an avalanche of AAU offense, inexplicable turnovers and foolish fouls conspiring in a 91-85 loss.

James delivered his 29 points and 14 rebounds for a 2-1 series lead, and he made Thunder star Kevin Durant miss everything on two telltale possessions late in the fourth quarter. He pushed Durant deep into foul trouble. James obliterated Durant the way his two trips to the NBA Finals, his three MVP awards, his successes and failures, demand he devour everything between him and the celebratory podium.

"He’s just totally a different player," Miami’s Dwyane Wade said. "Up until the Finals last year, he was having an amazing playoffs. He had a game where he struggled and he kind of let that get into his mind a little bit – and he was thinking too much.

“Now he’s playing. He’s on attack. When he puts his head down to go to the rim, you have no other choice but to foul him or he’s going to finish."

All these Heat stars have come to embrace the failures of a year ago, come to let it wash over, coat them with resolve. The Mavericks taught them about poise and treating the Finals moment with the respect it deserves. The Mavericks were the perfect storm to beat the Heat a year ago: Stars understanding this was a final chance, replete with a rim-protecting center, spectacular shooting and a great coach.

[Related: LeBron James lead Heat past Thunder in Game 3 of NBA Finals]

Scott Brooks is a pedestrian coach whose own organization isn’t sure how long of a contract extension, nor how rich, it wants to reward him at season’s end. Before Sunday night, Durant was playing the part of Dirk Nowitzki, but the rest of these Thunder are struggling to belong. The Thunder made a mere 15 of 24 free throws, and that speaks to poise, to the moment becoming too big, too burdened. If Brooks has to bench his All-Star guard, Russell Westbrook, for the final five minutes of a third quarter in the Finals, are the Thunder ready to be champions?

Oklahoma City center Kendrick Perkins, a champion with the Boston Celtics, was clear with his concern: These Thunder are taking the Finals for granted, refusing to match the Heat’s desperation and determination. Perkins knows he’s on the wrong side of a sharp, focused game plan and execution. When Derek Fisher is jacking a 3-pointer on the fast break in the fourth quarter – and shooting on three consecutive possessions – the Thunder need to re-evaluate everything.

"We’ve got to understand that over there in the locker room, there’s a team that really wants it," Perkins grumbled. "They’ve got a couple guys over there who want this. … They want it. Nothing’s going to be given to us, we’ve got to go take it. We were just careless and sloppy. … We’ve got to know that we are in the Finals.

"We’ve got to trust each other. Tonight, we got back to 'I' basketball, the individual shooting over two and three people."

James has transformed his game to take advantage of these unfocused Thunder. He is in perpetual attack mode, unabashedly assaulting the rim, daring mere mortals to step between the basket and his 6-foot-9, 270-pound locomotive. Once, he played the part of the contrarian, refusing to use his Karl Malone physique in the low post simply because, well, everyone told him he should use it.

As one former member of the Cleveland Cavaliers staff texted, "We tried to post him and he had great success at times, but he wouldn’t commit to it." He used to live on the perimeter in isolations and pick-and-rolls for the Cavaliers, but his championship destiny was forever following this blueprint. He had to take the path of most resistance, a fitting completion to his jagged journey to glory. The Dallas debacle lingers for these Heat, but mostly for James. He was the reason Miami lost a year ago, and he’d be the reason that they win this time. In the way James backed down a year ago, he’s hurtling himself forward now. In the way he shrunk, he’s rising now. Chris Bosh insisted, "We carry that pain with us. We think about it every day."

And that’s so important for these Heat, so much a part of why for the sluggish intervals – the wildly up-and-down performances of everyone but James and Shane Battier in these Finals – they’re fueled with a ferocity that ultimately manifests itself into execution and performance. James has come out of a place of accountability, out of the realization that it wasn’t his teammates, his coaches, his critics responsible for flaking out in past pressure situations. It was him, and it will be on him to elevate himself into something more, into the kind of champion that his talent demands he become.

[Related: Kevin Durant forced to sit as Heat rally by Thunder in Game 3]

"I didn’t make enough game-changing plays," James said. "I didn’t do that last year in the Finals."

No, James doesn’t run from his failures in the NBA Finals a year ago, doesn’t defy the obvious that he short-circuited and evaporated in the Heat’s moment of truth. “It’s been a great teacher for all of us,” James said. Perhaps no one greater than him.

And as these Oklahoma City Thunder endure the trials that come with the Finals, learn the hard lessons that come under the bright lights of this big stage, the Heat have pushed past that and understand everything needed to be champions now. The Mavericks are long gone, and three games into this NBA Finals, the Heat understand they can counter these Thunder. They’re flush with confidence that there are answers to the problems, that there are solutions to the most seeming of dire straits.

Dallas "picked us apart and we weren’t able to regroup," Wade said. "And we feel like when [the Thunder’s] picking us apart, our conversation is different. We understand a little different."

Mostly, the Heat understand now: When Nowitzki is going off in the fourth quarter – or now, Durant – James is running into the burning house, not away from it. Salvation is coming in that immense talent and willing mind, the most menacing physical force in basketball bringing a decidedly different disposition to the job. Perkins is right: The Heat are downright desperate to be champions, and it starts with the best player finally configuring mind and body for the final leg of his journey, two victories between him and the unburdening of basketball’s greatest albatross.

The championship is waiting for James now, within his grasp, and there’s no more backing down, no more quaking, no more hesitation. Finally, LeBron James is coming.

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