Oklahoma City • Reputations are not transformed by a single play, a single shot, a single victory. They evolve, sometimes reluctantly, with a steady accumulation of evidence. But a timely tweet can help nudge the process.
Late Thursday night, an NBA-managed Twitter feed produced this breathless alert: “That was LeBron’s first clutch (5 pt game, 5 mins left) basket on the road in the Finals in his entire career.”
Never mind the impatient tone, which seemed to suggest, “It’s about time,” or that this was a fairly minor milestone for one of the most gifted players. The recognition is the thing, and James is chipping away at his reputation as a not-ready-for-crunch-time superstar in these NBA finals.
With the Oklahoma City Thunder rallying late in Game 2, and less than two minutes to play, James drilled a 15-foot bank shot that extended the Miami Heat’s cushion to 96-91. That was the clutch shot — defined as a basket that comes with less than five minutes to play, and a margin of less than five points — that was highlighted in the Twitter post.
James then harassed Kevin Durant into a missed 7-footer that could have tied the score, grabbed the rebound and calmly hit two free throws for a 100-96 victory that tied the finals at one game apiece and stole the Thunder’s home-court advantage. That James surely fouled Durant, and got away with it, does not change the fact that he made the critical stop, and was bold enough to risk the whistle.
“I just tried to keep a body on him and make him take a tough one,” James said.
This series seems destined to go six or seven games, but already James is demonstrating that the 2012 finals will not be like the 2011 finals, when he drifted through fourth quarters and let the championship slip away to the Dallas Mavericks.
James is not drifting, or settling, in these finals.
Of his 46 field-goal attempts, 30 have come within nine feet of the basket, including 21 within five feet, according to the NBA.com statistics database. That’s more than Kevin Durant (14 shots within nine feet), more than Russell Westbrook (25) and more than his teammate Dwyane Wade (19). James also leads that group in free throws, going 19 for 21 from the line over two games.
When the Heat lost Game 1 on Tuesday, blowing a 13-point lead along the way, they appeared to be suffering from the same mental wobbles that cost them the series against the Mavericks last June. They were steadier in Game 2, holding the lead from the first basket and holding off the Thunder’s fourth-quarter charge.
“I think this postseason, and everything we’ve been through, has shown that this group has a resourcefulness, a resolve, a resiliency,” coach Erik Spoelstra said.
The Heat have shown it throughout this playoff run — rallying back from a 2-1 deficit against the Indiana Pacers in the second round and from a 3-2 deficit against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.
James produced one of the greatest performances in playoff history with his 45-point, 15-rebound tour de force in Game 6 of the conference finals, then put that series away with a 31-point, 12-rebound effort in Game 7.
So when someone asked about the Heat’s reputation for meltdowns, James neither flinched nor shied from the issue, saying simply and convincingly, “I’m a confident guy.” A statement to skeptics? No, James said, his expression flat and unchanged. “We want to make enough plays to win basketball games, not to answer any questions about what people have to say about us.”
Despite Oklahoma City’s superior depth and athleticism, the Heat have trailed in this series for just 12 minutes 16 seconds. They were the first to beat the Thunder on their home court in this postseason. Now the Heat head home for three games, and the nagging questions instead hover over the Thunder.
The Thunder’s first-quarter struggles — an 11-point deficit in Game 1, a 17-point deficit in Game 2 — have sparked a debate over their starting lineup, and suggestions that they should downsize to match the Heat’s small lineup.
The Thunder have thrived all season with an imposing defensive front of Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. But Miami is starting Chris Bosh, Shane Battier and James in the frontcourt, forcing the 6-foot-10 Ibaka to guard the perimeter, and not well. The result is that Battier has been repeatedly left open for 3-pointers, hitting three in the first quarter of Game 1 and two more in the first quarter of Game 2. Battier has scored 17 points in each game, far exceeding his average for the first three playoff rounds (5.7 points).
Then there is Westbrook, whose impulsive, erratic shooting contributed to the Thunder’s first-half struggles and restoked concerns about his playing style. There were audible groans in the crowd Thursday night as Westbrook fired off 10 shots, missing eight of them, in the first half.
When coach Scott Brooks bemoaned a lack of ball movement and “too many bad shots,” it sounded like a critique of Westbrook, who has often struggled to find the balance between playmaking and scoring.
Westbrook bounced back with a much stronger second half (8 for 16, four assists), and he has been mostly brilliant in his first finals, averaging a LeBron-like 27 points, eight rebounds and nine assists. But, as James could tell him, reputations can be hard to shake.