OKLAHOMA CITY -- "Resilient" is not a word most people use to describe the Miami Heat, but since I'm not allowed to repeat the words they do use, let's start with that one. In one of the toughest road venues in the NBA -- season on the line, world ready to pounce -- the Heat were tougher, stronger and just grittier than the Oklahoma City Thunder.
At the end, it looked like the Heat escaped with a 100-96 win in Game 2 to even the NBA Finals. There was Kevin Durant, ball in hand, team down two, releasing a shot he so often makes, and possibly getting fouled by LeBron James. The shot missed. No foul was called. This being the NBA in 2012, it immediately became the most outrageous bad call since British Prime Minster Neville Chamberlain declared "peace for our time" in 1938, but really, there are worse NBA calls in every game. If that happened in the second quarter nobody would remember it by halftime.
The Thunder and Heat were not fooled. They know that Miami was the better team in Game 2. The obsession over this particular foul call is annoying because it just adds to the narrative that everything is handed to the Heat on a diamond-studded platter carried by Jim Gray. And that was not the story of this game.
If you can strip away all of your feelings about the Heat, good or bad, hopefully you can appreciate what Miami did. The Thunder are younger, deeper and just as athletic. But here was Chris Bosh, still coming back from an injury, grabbing 15 rebounds, and here was Dwyane Wade, who might be injured himself, putting up extra shots before tip-off and scoring 24 points, and here was Shane Battier, who waited forever to go deep into the playoffs, sinking five of seven three-pointers.
"We're not the best passing team in the history of basketball, and I've let people know that on my team," Battier said with a laugh. "I've told guys, 'Give me good passes and I'm going to make some shots.'"
These guys aren't the aging Celtics, but they aren't young, either. They have struggled to figure out how to play together, and to deal with what coach Erik Spoelstra calls "noise." Well, they are figuring it out. That doesn't mean they will win the series. But this looked like the team that Pat Riley envisioned in the summer of 2010.
James was the best player on the floor, playing everything from point guard to power forward. Miami's defense was relentless and disruptive. Bosh said he "absolutely" thought this was a must-win game, and Miami embraced that pressure. That has not always been the case with this team. Perhaps you've heard about that.
Miami led 18-2 and
I recognize that it might have looked different on TV. But in the building, with the Thunder crowd going nuts and Durant also going nuts ... well, wilting would have been easy. The Heat sent a message to Oklahoma City:
Now, back to that non-call in the final minute. A bizarre series of events led to it. Wade was stripped at midcourt. Durant got a wide-open three in transition. Then Miami did something silly: It bled the clock and let James take a three-pointer as the shot clock wound down with no screen, no action, no anything. It was bad strategy, because the Thunder would have plenty of time to score anyway, and up two, Miami needed a basket more than it needed an extra three or four seconds. Plus, James and Wade had been getting to the rim all night. Sometimes the Heat offense doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Anyway, that led to the Durant shot, and the James non-call. But James still had to hit two free throws to finish the game, and he did. He was 12 for 12 from the line.
For all the amazing plays from James -- the leaning bank shot, the bullet passes to open shooters -- the Heat cannot win the title on highlights. Miami needs guts. In what is starting to look like an all-time-great NBA Finals, Miami showed guts.
Once Miami built its big early lead, you knew the Thunder would make some kind of comeback, and the only question was whether Miami was tough enough to withstand it. The Heat did.
It was not a perfect night. Miami probably should have gone harder at Durant when he had five fouls -- Battier said they wanted to -- but that could have taken the Heat out of their offense completely, because Durant was not guarding James, Wade or Bosh at that point. Miami could have played a little better in the fourth quarter.
But champions don't have to play like champions all the time. They just have to believe they are champions all the time. The Heat can't win this series on talent. Battier said, "The effort it took to win this one game was monumental," and the Heat will need that kind of effort the rest of the way to win. But this year, they know it, and they know how to produce it. And that is why they can win.