Carrying their championship burden, LeBron and Wade strike right balance
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Miami's dynamic duo of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade expertly took turns initiating the offense down the stretch Thursday night, and the Heat survived a late flurry by the Oklahoma City Thunder for a 100-96 victory that evened the NBA Finals at 1-1.
"Kind of like OKC does a lot down the stretch with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant," Wade said. "Myself and LeBron -- Chris [Bosh] was in the mix as well -- did a good job of us touching the ball, just playing off each other and being aggressive at the same time, which I felt I didn't do in Game 1."
Wade bounced back from that miserable Game 1 performance with 24 points and had the ball in his hands down the stretch -- probing the defense, attacking, dodging and feeling out an opponent that he and James are quickly learning how to attack. A day after playfully brushing off questions about whether he had lost it, lost the explosiveness that had made him one of the brute forces of the sport, it was like old times for Wade. Everything used to run through him for the Heat before James arrived last season, and here he was again.
"Just know that I'm always going to keep coming back until I don't play this game anymore," Wade said.
It wasn't the 2006 Wade; he had already admitted Wednesday that we'll never see that guy again. But the balance he and James struck in the fourth quarter, when the Heat held off the Thunder's attempt to close a 13-point deficit, was wondrous to watch.
After James initiated the offense for the first half of the fourth quarter, Wade got his turn -- and it was just in time for Miami, which faced the crushing prospect of retreating from this sea of noise and blue shirts in the heartland with an 0-2 deficit.
The Thunder had cut the deficit to four, 85-81, on a transition layup by Westbrook off a steal by Nick Collison, and Wade went the other way with his dribble and the Heat's often shaky fourth-quarter offense at his command. He created a shot for himself this time, a fadeaway jumper that pushed the lead to 87-81.
When the Thunder cut it to five, James took over, attracting a trap at the top of the key and firing a bounce pass to a cutting Wade for a point-blank jumper that made it 94-87 with 2:58 left.
Two more baskets from Westbrook and it was a three-point lead at 94-91, the noise rising up in Chesapeake Energy Arena until your ears hurt. Wade went on the attack again, probing the defense until the play broke down and finding James on the wing for a tough-angle bank shot that made it 96-91 with 1:26 left.
"It was a broken play at the end of the end of the possession," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, "and [James] did what great players do. They create something out of nothing."
The play that exemplified how the Heat played down the stretch, how James and Wade need to work in concert to lift this heavy championship burden off their shoulders, came with a minute left -- a minute to go and a mile between the two possible outcomes.
"It meant everything," James said.
Wade had the ball again, trying to turn back the calendar to '06 and erase the the horror show that had been Game 1 for him. The lethal dose of medicine came when James set a screen and freed Wade to slither into the paint, darting like a cobra. He found Bosh, starting his first game since the conference semifinals, on a bounce pass for a dunk that made it 98-91 with 53 seconds to play.
Once the Heat survived a late flurry by the Thunder -- fueled by Derek Fisher's steal near the sideline leading to a 3-pointer from Durant that cut it to 98-96 with 37 seconds left -- it was time for James to go to the foul line with everything at stake.
Durant missed a baseline 7-footer, and James made both free throws. He was 12 for 12 from the line, a calming finish to what had been a furious, pulsating duet by James and Wade.
"We needed every point tonight," James said.
LeBron had 32 of them, and Bosh 16 in his return to the starting lineup. But it was the clear-minded balance struck by James and Wade that sent this series to Miami dead-even, with seven games written all over it.
On the day before Game 2, this was the outcome that Thunder center Kendrick Perkins had feared the most.
Perkins had seen James and Wade separately in the playoffs before, and knew what Wade was capable of doing. He had seen Wade's meltdown in Game 1, heard him questioned and seen him ridiculed, and knew something like this might be coming.
"The scary thing about it is," Perkins said, "he bounces back. Every time he struggles one game, he bounces back."
Sure enough, Wade did. In the proper doses, Wade and James are still as lethal as it gets. The championship burden isn't lifted yet, but it's sitting a little lighter on their shoulders.
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