James, Heat take 2-1 lead in Game 4 vs. Thunder

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_ Durant took a couple steps toward the rim, looking for a rebound that never came.

The basket gave Miami an 86-79 lead, and was essentially the game-winner. Oklahoma City scored the next six points, but no more after that. James passed the ball to where only Bosh could catch it with 1:19 left, setting up two free throws to stop the Thunder run. James hit a free throw for a four-point Miami edge, and moments later grabbed the last rebound of the night, dribbled over midcourt and flipped the ball to an official as time expired in the 91-85 Heat win.

“I just try to be a leader, out on the floor, in the locker room, and do whatever it takes for us to win basketball games,” James said. “You know, at the end of the day, they look at me to make plays. They look at me to lead them. But I’m not the only leader of this team.”

Afterward, the Thunder simply tipped their caps.

“He’s an aggressive player,” Harden said. “He’s been aggressive all year, all postseason. He’s tall, strong, and physical. He’s a tough matchup.”

And he certainly looks tougher than he did a year ago at this time.

The Heat played 21 postseason games last year, and are at that same number this year. James has taken 90 more shots in these playoffs, 61 more free throws, grabbed 28 more rebounds and scored 148 more points. With him on the floor in last year’s playoffs, Miami outscored teams by just 29 points. So far in these playoffs, the Heat have outscored opponents by 171 with James on the court.

Some of those offensive jumps are largely because of the Heat needing more when they were without Bosh for nine games. Still, the simple fact that Miami is alive in these playoffs is because when James had to do more, he found a way. Like the 40-point, 18-rebound, nine-assist game that turned the Indiana series around. Or the 45-point, 15-rebound performance that saved the season at Boston in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.

The league’s MVP this season is playing at an “even higher” level now, Haslem said. “He’s pretty much done whatever we’ve asked him to do.”

Their next request: Avoid a repeat of what happened in Game 4 of the finals last season.

James was awful in that game against Dallas, scoring just eight points as the Mavericks won 86-83 _ the first step in a three-game slide that ended the Heat season.

So the Thunder know a 2-1 deficit in a series is hardly insurmountable, even though the home-court roles are reversed this time around. And if Oklahoma City needed more proof, all the Thunder need to do is remember the Western Conference finals and how they lost the first two games to San Antonio, becoming the 19th and 20th entries on the Spurs’ incredible winning streak. The Spurs didn’t win another game the rest of the way.

“We were down 2-0 against San Antonio and everybody thought the series was over,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “But I know our guys, they’re very competitive, they’re very resilient. They’ve always showed that type of effort every game, and we’ve always been a great bounce-back team.”

The question is, will James continue putting together a bounce-back finals?

If he does, his nine-year quest for his first NBA championship might finally be nearing an end.

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