The Miami Heat have come a long way since they fell to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals. Finding themselves one game away from the mountaintop, LeBron James and the Heat sound like they are the team down 3 games to 1 in the series, and not the Oklahoma City Thunder.
"I have a job to do," James said Wednesday. "And my job is not done." His coach echoed that sentiment.
"It's Game 5," Erik Spoelstra said. "We want to treat it as a Game 7. But we are preparing for Game 5 to protect our home court and to take care of that business. It's been well documented the experience we went through last year and the pain and all that. It doesn't guarantee anything. Experience is a great teacher. You know, hopefully all those experiences will help us."
If their experience from Game 4 taught the Heat anything, it was the importance of defending Thunder PG Russell Westbrook. He showed that teammate and scoring champ Kevin Durant is not the only guy on the team who can light up the scoreboard, finishing with 43 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists.
Even though Miami did a good job at containing Durant (it shows how good he is that 28 points is considered a mediocre night for him in the Finals), Westbrook punished the Heat, hitting 20 of 32 from the field.
It may be unlikely for Westbrook to repeat his super-efficient performance (he shot 46% from the field during the regular season, after all). He shot 11 for 18 from outside the paint on Tuesday, but the Heat would rather see Westbrook attempting those mid-range jump shots than slicing through the lane for easier buckets at the rim.
The easiest way to keep Westbrook from the basket would be to limit the Thunder's transition opportunities. OKC scored 17 fast-break points in Game 4, compared to 9 for Miami. The Heat usually do not win when outscored on the fast break, but they did by limiting the Thunder's opportunities in the paint after the first quarter.
OKC scored 16 points in the paint during a frenetic first quarter, but only 10 per quarter thereafter as the pace of the game slowed. By missing fewer shots in the last three quarters, the Heat limited the Thunder's opportunities to move into the paint in transition. Sometimes the best defense is a good offense.
The Heat will again try to attack Durant's suspect defense. The Thunder placed him on Mario Chalmers Tuesday, hoping to give him an easier assignment than James (who has a habit of getting Durant into foul trouble, to boot). That plan backfired, with Chalmers putting up 19 second-half points en route to a 25-point performance.
Perhaps Thunder coach Scott Brooks will switch Durant back to James on Thursday, but LeBron will probably not be slowed by leg cramps like he was Tuesday.
"I feel a lot better than I did last night. That's clear," James said. "I'm still a little (sore) because of the muscles just kind of being at an intense level, very tight. I'm still sore. I was able to get some treatment last night. I was able to get some treatment this morning. ... And also with the game being basically at midnight tomorrow night, I have all day tomorrow, too, to prepare. I should be fine by tomorrow night."
Even though no team has won the NBA Finals after trailing 3-1, the Thunder will not go down without a fight. "We didn't get here just to make it here and say we did," Durant said Wednesday. "We made it to the finals. We want to come in here and we want to try to get a title. It's all about keep competing until that last buzzer sounds, and that's what we're going to do."
The Heat are just as primed for Game 5. "This team, I think we understand that the moment is the biggest thing," Dwyane Wade said. "We're excited about the possibility of playing better, doing things better defensively, but also offensively. We don't feel like we've played our best game yet, and we feel that's still to come."
Miami will get a chance to put the Thunder away at home on Thursday at 9. If they cannot, then the series will move to Oklahoma for Game 6.