MIAMI -- The closest games were supposed to favor the Thunder. They were supposed to be the better team down the stretch, even though that reputation for performance under pressure had not been earned. Yes, they'd dethroned the Mavericks in the opening round, survived the Lakers and overwhelmed the Spurs, but suddenly none of that mattered.
The Heat understand what matters. They won Game 3 on Sunday 91-85 to take a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals because they've grown to understand better than any team in the league that reputations don't mean anything until they've been established on these late nights of June, and that no possession in your life means more than the expensive exchanges in the final minutes that have moved Miami within two games of the championship.
"Every day we remind ourselves," said power forward Chris Bosh, who was a horrid 3-of-12 from the field and yet was defined by his double-double of 10 points and 11 rebounds in this victory. "We think of that pain that we experienced last year. It hurts a lot worse when you're not successful as opposed to, I guess, your lungs burning and your muscles burning from giving that extra effort. We carry that pain with us. We think about it every day, and that really helps us to succeed in this series."
How many times can it be said that Miami's failure in the NBA Finals one year ago has given it a sense of potential and ambition that Oklahoma City is just now beginning to recognize? It has little to do with reaching high. It has everything to do with the capacity within to overcome and to wrestle.
Miami's conviction can be found in these fist-clenched stats. The Heat outscored Oklahoma City 31-15 from the free-throw line, and LeBron James has attempted almost twice as many free throws in these three games as he did throughout the six-game Finals of last year. The team that settled for jump shots one year ago has become the team that scored all but five of its 28 field goals in the paint Sunday. The Thunder have superior size and yet were outrebounded 45-38 (including 14-11 on the offensive glass) as Bosh and James, both of whom used to be inordinately proud of their refined skills, combined for 25 boards.
Miami tightened its hold on the series while shooting 37.8 percent from the field and committing a preposterous nine turnovers in the fourth quarter. Last year it was numbers like those that invited Dallas to steal a couple of early games and win the Finals going away. The Heat remember how that felt, and in the Thunder they are able to recognize the Miami Heat as they used to be one year ago.
"We understand that it's been a great teacher for us," James said of the burning that has tortured him and his teammates for the last 12 months.
Those memories have become something they treasure, because few teams have them. The Mavericks had them last year, the Heat have them this year and maybe the Thunder -- unless they suddenly find it within themselves to define and establish their style at Miami's expense -- will dwell on them and build for next year.
The Thunder were up 60-51 in the third quarter and pulling away via Kevin Durant (25 points on 11-of-19 shooting) and Russell Westbrook (19 points on 8-for-18), who had been excessively criticized in Game 2. To his credit Westbrook was continuing to attack, and it would have been natural for the Oklahoma City point guard to be proud of himself for that. The Heat would have understood that kind of premature satisfaction. It is part of their collective memory.
"Looking by the clock, you know if you don't get this back right now, it could be ugly," Miami guard Dwyane Wade said. "We're a pretty good team when we're desperate."
The game began to change when Wade up-faked Durant to force the Thunder star to the bench with his fourth foul. Then Thunder coach Scott Brooks benched Westbrook, who played three straight possessions out of control -- a poorly conceived three-pointer, a wild drive and a charging foul in transition. "I took him out to kind of calm him down," Brooks said. A second unit led by James Harden would spend the remainder of the quarter being outscored 15-7 to give Miami a 69-67 lead into the fourth.
There have been many times when the phrasings of coach Erik Spoelstra have not resonated with his newly constructed roster over Miami's last two seasons. But now all of it was ringing true as he looked back on the kind of fourth quarter that has always defined Pat Riley's style but never had characterized James or Bosh until recently.
"You have to have resourcefulness, and it's not always going to go according to plan," Spoelstra said. "This playoff run that we've been on, we've been knocked down to the canvas several times. ... If that means 30 percent [shooting] in the second half but rebounding the basketball, getting some timely scores, we'll take it. We know this is going to be a grind."
Has he been reminding his players of the tests they've survived to earn this opportunity?
"We bring it up," Spoelstra said proudly, "but we're not imploring them the way we used to have to in the past."
James and Bosh didn't know what they were signing up for two summers ago. Now they embrace the qualities and style they used to reject. When Spoelstra asked Bosh toward the end of this season to move from power forward to center, Bosh realized how far he had come.
"It's something that I had really been fighting my whole career," he said of the move to center. "But not this year."
Now "soft" Chris Bosh was generating five rebounds and two free throws in the fourth quarter. And James was continuing to attack the basket as he rarely did last year. It is no criticism of Westbrook to point out that the Heat are in more secure hands when James is commanding their offense beyond the top of the key. Down the stretch, Durant lost his handle while trying to cross over James, Harden overthrew a simple lateral to Durant for another turnover and Durant saved a wild pass from Westbrook only to see Harden lose his dribble. Amid those mistakes, Wade and James were each converting traditional three-point drives, with James' dunk in transition boosting Miami's advantage to 84-77 with 3:47 left.
When Wade's lost dribble at center court gave way to a transition dunk by Thabo Sefolosha, to be followed by a Westbrook jumper to make it 86-85, the Heat responded by going back to their newfound strengths. James hit Bosh rolling to the basket for a pair of free throws, and the Thunder wouldn't score against Miami's defense over the final 90 seconds.
"It wasn't pretty all the way through, but here in Miami we like these wins," Spoelstra said. "Because these are gritty wins that speak a lot to the team's character."
He was defining his team the way football coaches like to talk after they've established their running game, one handoff after the next and you know what's coming, but how are you going to stop it? That's the problem facing the Thunder now. For as long as they'd been under scrutiny, the Heat knew what they were lacking, and they were reminded of their failures every day. Now they're two wins away from realizing what they can be. Can the Thunder put a stop to this trend that has been developing for two years? Or are the Heat on the verge of distancing themselves and breaking free -- not only from their past, but also from their last remaining obstacle?