James stands tall as Miami go level

 

Miami Heat 100 Oklahoma Heat 96:In the moment everyone waited for, the one that had filled giddy previews and stoked bar-room conversations, Kevin Durant and LeBron James squared off, stared each other down and pressed against each other, fighting for just a few inches of floor space late on Thursday night.

Durant drove the baseline. James met him. Forearms tangled. Then Durant leaned back and lofted a seven-footer that drew only iron and howls of protest from 18,203 partisans at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Foul or no foul, James had made his stand. And the Miami Heat had secured their first victory of the 2012 finals, a 100-96 thriller that tied the series with the Oklahoma City Thunder at 1-1.

“I just tried to keep a body on him and make him hit a tough one,” James said.

It was a defining moment for James, for his team and perhaps for this series, which now shifts to Miami for the next three games, starting on Sunday.

James scored 32 points and guarded Durant fiercely down the stretch. It was the assignment that James asked for, and one that coach Erik Spoelstra – after avoiding the match-up in game one

finally agreed was best. “It was mutual,” Spoelstra said.

For the second straight game, the Heat pounced early, this time taking a 17-point lead in the first half. For the second straight game, the Thunder produced a furious second-half rally, cutting the deficit to 98-96 on Durant’s three-pointer with 37.5 seconds left.

After James missed a three-pointer, the Thunder had their chance to tie the game for the first time. But James met Durant on the baseline, put a forearm into his midsection and stayed glued to him through the shot. After Durant missed, James sealed the win with a pair of free throws.

Fans booed the lack of a whistle, and centre Kendrick Perkins barked at referees after the final buzzer, but neither Durant nor coach Scott Brooks would say definitively that Durant had been fouled.

“That’s one play,” Brooks said. “We have so many other plays that we could have done better to put us in a position to stay closer in the game.”

Brooks said he was more concerned about the first eight minutes of the game, when the Heat took an 18-2 lead, than about the last minute.

“I think I shot a good shot,” Durant said. “I just missed.” Asked if there was contact on the play, Durant said: “I really couldn’t tell you. I’ve got to watch the film, I guess.”

Pressed further, he responded, somewhat testily, “I missed the shot, man.”

The misfire cut short what was shaping up to be another fantastic comeback, a companion piece to the Thunder's game one victory, when they came back from a 13-point deficit.

Durant was again brilliant, this time scoring 16 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter, despite James's best defensive efforts. But the Heat were tougher and more efficient and finally whole again. Chris Bosh rejoined the starting line-up for the first time since injuring an abdominal muscle a month ago and finished with 16 points and 15 rebounds. Dwyane Wade bounced back from a sub-par game to score 24 points.

“It was key, having our best players on the floor early,” Wade said.

It was also a key late - with Wade dishing to Bosh in the paint for an easy dunk and a 98-91 lead with 53.8 seconds left. Durant scored the next five points - including a three-pointer that came after Wade’s backcourt turnover - to give the Thunder the chance to tie.

This was a key victory for Miami. Only one team has lost the first two finals games on the road and won the title. The odds are slightly better with the split: In 12 previous 1-1 ties, the team that started at home has won the championship eight times.

The Thunder had been 9-0 at home in the post-season and had not lost here since April 5th.“This is a good team, and we didn’t want to be down, 2-0,” Bosh said.

Miami again got a major boost from Shane Battier, who hit five three-pointers and finished with 17 points.

The Thunder enjoyed a resurgence from James Harden, who scored 21 points off the bench. But they endured an erratic game from Russell

Westbrook (27 points), who went 10 for 26 and forced a number of questionable shots in the first half, when the Heat took the lead.

Brooks did not point the finger at any one player, but he surely had Westbrook in mind when he repeatedly said that the Thunder had done a poor job of moving the ball. He shot six for 18 over the first three quarters.

The Thunder also had to survive Durant’s foul trouble. He picked up his fifth foul while tangling for a rebound with 10.31 to play, the Thunder trailing by 11 points. There was little choice but to leave him in the game.

Undaunted, Durant promptly hit a three-pointer, then followed with a fast-break dunk that started the Thunder on a 12-3 run. Westbrook’s three-point play cut the deficit to 85-81 with 6.06 to play.

Bosh made his first start since May 13th and replaced Udonis Haslem, giving the Heat their seventh starting line-up of the play-offs, and one they had never used before, even in the regular season.

Clearly, the combination clicked, as the Heat raced to an 18-2 lead, with Bosh contributing three rebounds and four points in the opening minutes. “That was the game,” Durant said. “We can’t get down that much, especially at home.” - New York Times Service