MIAMI – It’s there every day for LeBron James and the Heat — the sting of last year’s NBA Finals loss.
Two more wins and it will be a distant memory.
James had 29 points and 14 rebounds, and the Miami Heat posted a 91-85 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday night to take a 2-1 series lead in the Finals.
Dwyane Wade had 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists for the Heat, which was in this same position through three games last year, then didn’t win again against the Dallas Mavericks.
“We carry that pain with us,” Miami’s Chris Bosh said. “We think about it every day and that really helps us to succeed in this series.”
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 his team was building just enough cushion to hold off another late flurry by the Thunder.
“Just trying to make plays,” James said. “I told you guys, last year I didn’t make enough game-changing plays, and that’s what I kind of pride myself on. I didn’t do that last year in the Finals. I’m just trying to make game-changing plays, and whatever it takes for our team to win, just trying to step up in key moments and be there for my teammates.”
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 his team seemed to have control of the game.
“It was frustrating,” Durant said. “Of course we had a good lead and they came back and made some shots. We fouled shooters on the 3-point line twice. It’s a tough break for us, man. You know, I hate sitting on the bench, especially with fouls.”
The Heat survived its own fourth-quarter sloppiness — nine turnovers — by getting enough big plays from Miami’s 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 out of 21 postseason games this season, 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.
“He was great. He’s been great for us all playoffs,” Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. “I don’t know if he looks up at the clock or score sheet, but he knows when we need him to make big plays and come through for us, and he comes through.”
Bosh had 10 points and 11 rebounds for the Heat, which can win a second title by winning the next two games at home. That’s what Miami did in 2006.
The Heat seemed out of it when Oklahoma City opened a 10-point lead midway through the third. But then Durant picked up his fourth foul with 5 minutes, 41 seconds to play on Wade’s baseline drive, though there appeared to be little or no contact. Thunder coach Scott Brooks decided to sit guard Russell Westbrook with him, and the Heat charged into the lead by the end of the third.
Westbrook looked angry going to the bench, but denied any frustration.
“Nah, man. I mean, coach’s decision,” Westbrook said. “Got to live with it.”
The Thunder grabbed its last lead at 77-76 on James Harden’s basket with 7:32 to play. 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, ripping off six consecutive points to trail by 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. James hit a free throw for a four-point lead with 16 seconds to go and Wade added two to close it out.
“Last year, I don’t know if we (were) experienced enough as a unit to deal with what came at us,” Wade said. “I just feel like we understand the situations more and we can deal with it better.”
The Thunder was 4-for-18 (22 percent) on 3-pointers and 15-for-24 (63 percent) on free throws, unusually awful numbers for one of the league’s best offensive teams.