MIAMI (AP) — Halfway to a title, and LeBron James shows no sign of letting this one get away.
James‘ poor performance was part of the problem then, but he seems on top of his game this time. His 3-pointer sent the Heat to the fourth quarter with the lead, and he scored five straight Miami points when the Heat were building just enough cushion to hold off another late flurry by the Thunder.
Game 4 is Tuesday night.
Kevin Durant had 25 points for the Thunder, but picked up his fourth foul in the third quarter and had to go to the bench when they had seemed to have control of the game.
The Heat survived their own fourth-quarter sloppiness — nine turnovers — by getting enough big plays from their Big Three.
James scored 30 and 32 points in the first two games, his two best finals performances. He fell just shy of another 30-point effort but reached his 20 points for the 20th time this postseason, two shy of Wade’s franchise record set in 2006.
Gone is the player who seemed so tentative down the stretch last year in his second finals failure. He’s constantly on the attack now, all while defending Durant in key situations.
“It’s all about chemistry,” James said. “We understand where we like to get the ball, what we like to do in close situations, and it’s good to see us execute down the stretch. But more importantly it was great to see we were able to get stops. That’s where the game is won and we did that.”
They seemed out of it when Oklahoma City opened a 10-point lead midway through the third. But Durant had just gone out with 5:41 left on Wade’s baseline drive, though there appeared to be little or no contact. Thunder coach Scott Brooks decided to sit Russell Westbrook with him, and the Heat charged into the lead by the end of the period.
The Thunder had grabbed their last lead at 77-76 on James Harden’s basket with 7:32 left. James answered with two free throws about 20 seconds later, and the teams would trade turnovers and stops over the next couple of tense minutes.
Wade then converted a three-point play, and another minute went by before James powered to the basket, Durant trying to get in position to draw a charge but watching helplessly as he picked up his fifth foul. James made the free throw for an 84-77 advantage with 3:47 to play.
After another basket by James, the Thunder had one last burst — haven’t they always in this series? — ripping off six straight points to get within one before Bosh made a pair of free throws with 1:19 to play. Durant missed badly on a wild shot attempt, and the Thunder missed another chance when Westbrook was off from behind the arc.
“It’s very hard,” James said. “Both teams are very active defensively and both teams make it hard on one another in the half court so when you get stops you try to get early offense, it always helps and we were able to do that a little bit.”
The Thunder were just 4 of 18 on 3-pointers and hit only 15 of 24 free throws, unusually awful numbers for one of the league’s best offensive teams. Harden, the Sixth Man of the Year, shot 2 of 10 for his nine points. Westbrook finished with 19 points.
After a split of the first two games, the series made its way from Oklahoma City, where fans in blue shirts filled every seat, to Miami, where white shirts hung on empty chairs just minutes before the tip. The late arrivals in Oklahoma City had been the Thunder players, who fell into big early deficits and acknowledged some first-time finals jitters in Game 1. Brooks said he heard the cries to change his starting lineup but said it never crossed his mind.
The Thunder quickly fell behind 10-4 in this one after spotting the Heat a 13-point lead in Game 1 and getting clubbed into an 18-2 hole in the opening minutes of Game 2. They didn’t let things get any worse this time, playing the Heat even from there and trailing 26-20 after one. James, Wade and Bosh combined for Miami’s first 18 points.
James and Wade had some dazzling drives in the second and Shane Battier got free for a pair of 3-pointers in the final 2 minutes, but the Thunder stayed with them the entire way, briefly holding a three-point lead. Westbrook’s 3-pointer with 2.3 seconds left cut Miami’s lead to 47-46.
Oklahoma City started to take control with a 14-2 run early in the third. Durant had the first four points, Westbrook fooled the Heat with a fake behind the back pass before in for a layup, then Durant leaped over James for a follow dunk before nailing a jumper for a 60-51 lead with 6:55 left in the period.
But it was barely a minute later when he drew his fourth foul. The Thunder pushed the lead to 10 on Derek Fisher’s four-point play, but the Heat got right back in it when Battier and then Jones made all six free throws after being fouled behind the arc.
Notes: Battier had made at least four 3-pointers in three straight games. The last player to make four in four consecutive postseason games was Orlando’s Dennis Scott in 1995. … Brooks, joking Sunday morning about all the calls to change his lineup: “It’s hard to take all the advice,” he said. “I’m only allowed three bench assistant coaches.”