With 10 seconds left in Game 2, the NBA Finals were providing all the theater anyone could ask. Two superstars going head-to-head, the Miami Heat trying to hold off another stirring rally by the Oklahoma City Thunder, television ratings reaching levels last seen when Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal played together.
James forced Durant to miss that tying attempt — perhaps getting away with a foul — and the Heat held on for a 100-96 victory on Thursday night that evened the series at one game apiece. And as it shifts to Miami for the next three games, the only thing that seems certain is a tense series that looks to be lengthy.
Game 3 is Sunday night and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra thinks it will look similar to the first two.
“This is going to be probably like this every single game, and that’s the beauty of competition at this level, and embracing that competition and seeing what it brings out of you collectively,” Spoelstra said.
It’s brought out the best of league MVP James and Durant, the NBA scoring champion. The series hype was built around them and they spent the first two games living up to every ounce of it.
James has bounced back from his disappointing 2011 finals by scoring 30 and then 32 points, and even that was only good enough for a split because Durant has been just as good. He followed up his 36-point performance in Game 1 by scoring 32 on Thursday, 16 in the fourth quarter after he scored 17 in the final period of the opener. Yet that was wasted because the Thunder had fallen into a 17-point hole in the first half.
The Thunder also spotted Miami a 13-point lead in the first half of Game 1 and have fallen into double-digit holes in three straight games. Coach Scott Brooks said after Game 2 he wasn’t considering a new starting lineup, even though the Thunder have been more effective with a smaller group on the floor.
Instead, he said the only change the Thunder needed was greater intensity from the start.
“We didn’t come out with the toughness that we need to come out with. We’re an aggressive team, we’re a physical team,” he said. “Defensive mindset was not where it needs to be, and hopefully we change that going into Game 3.”
The slow starts at home could mean trouble for the Thunder in Miami, where they won’t have their raucous crowd to help rattle the Heat. But Oklahoma City has been good on the road in the postseason, winning twice in Dallas in the first round, taking a game in Los Angeles in the second round and pulling out a Game 5 victory in San Antonio in the Western Conference finals.
“These are the two best teams. They’re confident no matter what building they’re in,” James said. “We’re happy now that it’s a 1-1 series and we’re going back to Miami and will take control of the home court. It doesn’t mean that the series has changed. Both teams can win on each other’s floor and both teams are confident.”
Ratings through two games are up 11 percent from last year, when it seemed interest in the Heat couldn’t get higher, and Thursday drew the highest rating for a Game 2 since 2004, when the Lakers lost to Detroit in their last title run with O’Neal and Bryant.
The latest game provided a look at the best of what both teams have: James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all making big plays in the fourth quarter; Sixth Man of the Year James Harden coming off the Thunder bench to keep them in it while Durant sat with foul trouble; Russell Westbrook turning from sloppy to sensational as the game went along.
So what’s next?
“It’s a long series. After Game 1 there was the hyperbole of, ‘The Heat have no idea what to do with the speed of OKC.’ I have no idea what the story lines will be after Game 2,” Miami forward Shane Battier said. “We know every game is its own beast. You just have to play disciplined and tough to win a single game in the finals.”
Battier has provided surprising offense with 17 points in each game while also taking his turns defending Durant. But it’s James who will likely have that role during the important stretches, such as the crucial moment of Game 2.
Durant expects to score no matter who his guarding him. The problem, he said, is the Thunder aren’t paying enough attention to the other end of the floor.
“I’ve got to make shots for my team. But I think on the defensive end, we all have to be better, and we can’t really worry about the offensive end,” he said. “We missed shots, but we can’t let it dictate our defense. But I’ve got to stay positive, keep working, and we’re looking forward to a Game 3.”
The Heat’s last finals game on their home floor ended with Dallas celebrating a championship after Game 6 last year. They can be the ones partying this time if they take care of all three in Miami.
For now, the Heat are only worried about the first one.
“We’ve got to figure out a way at home to protect home floor, especially in Game 3, and win it,” Wade said. “If you go up there and lose Game 3, you’ve given them, in a sense, home court right back. We just want to continue to play well at home like we’ve done all season long.”