LeBron James stood at the foul line with America waiting. He had missed his first free throw with 16.2 seconds left. Didn’t matter he’d lugged the Heat this far. Didn’t matter he led them in points and rebounds yet another night.
America’s storyline involves the floating statistics on LeBron’s ends. He’s missed all three shots in close games in the final 24 seconds this season. He’s missed more than one-third of his foul shots in the final minute.
Now he’d missed the first Sunday night in a three-point game, and you could hear the chorus rising. He exhaled at the foul line. AmericaAirlines Arena went quiet as LeBron shot a final free throw on a night such shots decided fates.
And, with that, the Heat didn’t just take Game 3 of the NBA Finals with a 91-85 win against Oklahoma City and a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
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Maybe they saw a storyline fade a little. Maybe they saw an old conversation dry up just a little more. When the Heat play their best, they outwork out, outrun you, outmuscle you, outthink you and, most of all, out-LeBron you.
James, again, was the best player on the court Sunday. He, again, led the game in scoring with his 29 points. He, again, had 14 rebounds for the most on the night. But the clincher was the clinching stats, too:
No one had more than his eight points and four rebounds in the fourth quarter.
Good enough for you, America?
Good enough to change the conversation?
This was a night the Heat weren’t even at their best. They shot 37 percent. They had nine fourth-quarter turnovers, including four by Dwyane Wade.
So they won the game with trademark defense and spectacular, 31-of-35 free throws shooting. That includes making 25 of their final 27 foul shots. Whatever it takes, right?
Oklahoma City, meanwhile, made just 15 of 24 foul shots.
“And we’re the league-leading free-throw shooting team,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said.
Was this game that simple? Make your foul shots and win?
Maybe this night showed how a young Oklahoma City team is paying for youth, too. It shot 80 percent on free throws in the regular season. It made 55.6 percent Sunday.
If that’s youthful jitters, they spilled out in other ways. Brooks said he took Russell Westbrook out of the third quarter when his point guard was playing out of control for a stretch.
“Just to settle him down,” Brooks said.
But at some point Brooks has to make a decision not to have Kevin Durant guard LeBron. For the second straight game, Durant was in foul trouble. For the second straight game, he had to go to the bench on a key stretch.
Oklahoma City will point and merit that the fourth foul on Durant that sent him to the bench wasn’t much of one. Wade gave a head fake on a shot. Durant bit. And in the minimal contact the whistle blew.
The Thunder were on a run at that point that would give a 10-point lead. But without Durant to fear the Heat went on a 15-3 binge to close the quarter. Six of those points came on fouls to Shane Battier and Jones as they were shooting 3-point shots. All six foul shots were made.
And so the game was on.
“We’ve got to play to our identity,” Spoelstra said.
That meant defense. Oklahoma City went a four-minute stretch in the fourth quarter of no points and four turnovers. But the Heat weren’t faring much better against Oklahoma City.
Wade had his pocket picked by Thabo Sefolosha. He threw away another pass. The ball, at the end, was put in LeBron’s hands. He has scored at least 29 points in his last 10 games. He closed another night.
“Whatever it takes,” Spoelstra said.
This took what it usually does for the Heat lately. It took LeBron being the best player on the court, again, in Game 3.
Follow at Twitter/davehydesports.