In less than two weeks, it will be for real at AmericanAirlines Arena, with championship rings to be presented before the Oct. 30 season opener against the Celtics.
Photographer: Ronald Martinez, Getty Images Sport
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MIAMI, Fla. — The Miami Heat is one game from silencing the critics and disappointing the haters.
The Heat overcame a slow start in which it trailed by 17 points in the first quarter and dominated the final minutes of the fourth quarter on the way to a 104-98 victory Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arenas.
Miami leads the Finals 3-1 and can win the second title in franchise history — and the first since it became scorned nationally when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade two summers ago — Thursday night in Miami.
“We’re excited about the opportunity to have a chance to play for it,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We know at the same time, we have to stay the course. There will be an incredible amount of noise on the outside, and we have to focus on staying in the moment.”
The Thunder needs a victory to assure sending the series back to Oklahoma City, where it then would need to win twice to become the first team in Finals history to overcome a 3-1 series deficit.
All 30 teams that have led 3-1 in the Finals have gone on to win the championship.
“One of the things I know — I can guarantee this — is we have fight in us,” Oklahoma coach Scott Brooks said. “Obviously our backs are up against the wall. Win or go home.”
The Heat’s final run — the one that it might look back on as the most important of the season — came after an 11-2 run by the Thunder that gave it a 94-92 lead.
A Bosh layup, James three-pointer and Wade basket in the paint gave the Heat a 99-94 lead with 2:18 remaining.
The run came after James had to be carried to the bench with 5:15 remaining with leg cramps. The Heat called a timeout, and trainers worked on both of his quads. He returned 39 seconds later and limped through the rest of the game. He finished with 26 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds.
“That three was sheer will and competitiveness,” Spoelstra said.
Brooks cited James’ three, calling it an “amazing” shot coming back from his injury.
The Thunder twice got within three points in the final two minutes before Udonis Haslem won a key jump ball against James Harden with 17 seconds remaining and Miami held on.
“Whatever it takes,” Wade said. “No excuses. You don’t want to leave this arena saying you missed an opportunity.”
With James and Wade (25 points) giving their typical efforts, the third member of the Big Three on this night was Mario Chalmers.
After missing his first three shots, Chalmers was 2-of-18 from the field since Game 1. But something kicked in and the point guard finished with 25 points, 12 in the fourth quarter. He finished 9-of-15.
“The last couple of games, he’s had some open clean looks and hasn’t been able to knock those down,” Spoelstra said. “We told him the last two days he’d have those looks again … and we need another option. That kid is not afraid of any moment.”
The Thunder had Kevin Durant covering Chalmers at the start of the game, thinking it would keep its leading scorer out of foul trouble.
“I took that as a little sign of disrespect,” Chalmers said. “I think they kind of forgot about me and let me roam a little more for a while.”
The Heat overcame a breakout game by mercurial point guard Russell Westbrook, who scored 43 points for the Thunder, including a stretch in which he scored 13 straight OKC points in the fourth.
Westbrook took some of the pressure off Durant, who scored 28 points. The Thunder, though, once again was let down by Harden, the third member of its Big Three, who missed all but two of his 10 shots and had eight points.
“Russell is a winner. That guy competes all the time,” Brooks said. “The guy played relentless.”
Westbrook was in no mood to celebrate his performance.
“It really doesn’t mean nothing,” he said. “We didn’t come out with the win.”
The Heat started the fourth quarter with a four-point lead, but the Thunder was aggressive early, threatening to regain the lead when Harden stole the ball from Wade and raced down the court before blowing the layup.
Chalmers responded with a layup and a second-chance three-pointer, and instead of Oklahoma City leading by one, it trailed 85-79.
For the first time in the series, the Thunder got off to a quick start, leading by 17 in the first half before a Norris Cole three-pointer late made the score 33-19.
“A sense of urgency kicked in (after the first quarter),” the Heat’s James Jones said. “We picked up the defensive intensity.”
Cole sparked Miami. His three started a 16-0 run in which the Heat cut the Thunder lead to 33-32.
While Durant said the Thunder is “going to keep fighting,” Chalmers said the Heat is not chilling the champagne just yet.
“We’re not thinking about that right now,” he said. “We know in the back of our mind what it takes to win, and we want to finish it.”
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