Title clincher

Oklahoma City At Miami, Game 5, 9:00 p.m. EDT

MIAMI (AP) — LeBron James has never been here before.

He’s been in nearly every imaginable situation everything over his nine seasons marked by three MVP awards, three trips to the NBA Finals with two teams and one decision that changed everything.

And now this: For the first time, he’s one win from a championship.

“I have a job to do,” James said Wednesday. “And my job is not done.”

The job might get done Thursday night, when the Miami Heat – up 3-1 in this title series – host the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of the finals. Even after leaving Game 4 late with a cramp, James is on the cusp of finally becoming a champ. He was swept in his first finals trip in 2007, then he and the Heat fell in the 2011 title series in six games.

After countless ups and downs, the 804th game of his career may be the one that ends his title quest.

“I have no idea what I’ll say before we go out there,” said James, who got treatment against Wednesday but said soreness that followed the cramps in his left leg was easing. “It kind of just comes to me when I’m getting ready to go out there and stand on the floor. But hopefully whatever I say will inspire our guys to go out and give a good show.”

James joined the Heat in 2010 after Miami convinced him that he would have enough help to win a championship – more specifically, that he wouldn’t have to carry the load by himself, like he did so many times in Cleveland over his first seven seasons. The Heat were keeping Dwyane Wade, adding Chris Bosh and filling out the roster with a mix that would be best described as unconventional.

If that axiom – more options are better – actually needed to be proven, it was done in Game 4. James could not finish the game, though he returned after the first wave of cramps hit and delivered a key 3-pointer. With James watching the final minute, Wade and Mario Chalmers helped close out the Thunder, Miami winning 104-98 to move one win away from the franchise’s second championship.

“This team, I think we understand that the moment is the biggest thing,” 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.”

The Thunder expect the same from themselves. At least, they hope that’s the case.

No team in finals history has successfully rallied from a 3-1 series deficit, or even forced as much as a Game 7 when presented with that scenario since the league went to its current 2-3-2 finals format in 1985. But Oklahoma City’s losses in this series – in each of the last three games – have come by four, six and six points, respectively.

A play here, a bounce there, this series might look a whole lot different. And that’s why the Western Conference champions are conceding nothing.

“We didn’t get here just to make it here and say we did,” Thunder star Kevin Durant said. “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. That’s the type of city we play for, a city that never gives up. That’s the type of team we are. We’re going to keep fighting, keep fighting, and we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”

Russell Westbrook scored 43 points for the Thunder in Game 4 – and they were for naught. It was the second time in these playoffs that someone had scored at least that many against the Heat. And like Boston’s Rajon Rondo, who dropped 44 on Miami in the Eastern Conference finals, Westbrook walked off the court with a loss.

“I can’t really be too happy about what I (did) because we didn’t win,” Westbrook said. “It doesn’t matter. There’s probably a lot of different guys that put up so many points or so many amount of rebounds, and nobody remembers it. The only thing that people remember is if you won the championship, and that’s all that matters.”

It might take more than leg cramps to keep James off the court for too long in Game 5.

He was his usual self in practice on Wednesday, laughing with teammates while shooting a few free throws, looking at ease. And most importantly to Miami, he was moving without too much pain.

James had to be carried off the court in the fourth quarter of Game 4, unable to walk to the bench. A lot of fluids and rest later, some of the bounce was back in his step on Wednesday.

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.”

It’s a 9 p.m. tipoff, actually, but the point is made.

By Thursday night, James will be ready for the championship stage. And so will his team. What started on Christmas Day in Dallas, watching the Mavericks hoist the banner that will forever commemorate their championship celebration on Miami’s home floor last year, could end as the perfect turnaround story for the Heat.

“You’ve got to absolutely immerse yourself into the process and the focus,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It’s Game 5. 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.”

James says they’ve already helped him.

He could not have seemed more relaxed on Wednesday. The chance he’s waited nine years for comes on Thursday night, and James appeared totally comfortable in anticipation of that moment.

I’ve experienced some things in my long but short career, and I’m able to make it better of myself throughout these playoffs and throughout this whole year, and that’s on and off the court,” James said. “I’m just happy that I’m able to be in this position today and be back in this stage where I can do the things that I can do to make this team proud, make this organization proud, and we’ll see what happens.”

Heat can silence Thunder

Oklahoma City At Miami, Game 4, 9:00 p.m. EDT

LeBron James arrived for practice Monday wearing lime-green sneakers, a highly fluorescent shade.

It was the fashion statement du jour for the league’s three-time MVP, much like the eyeglass frames he’s been sporting after games throughout this postseason. But those sneakers probably would have remained tucked away in the drawer beneath his locker during last year’s NBA Finals, since very little about James’ game would be considered glowing or luminous during those two weeks.

Different year, different story.

For the second straight season, the Miami Heat hold a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals. There’s a glaring difference this time around – that being James is playing at the top of his game. And he’ll try to help the Heat move within one win of a championship on Tuesday night, when Miami plays host to the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 4 of this title series.

“We’re a totally different team than we was last year when we was up 2-1,” James said Monday. “We’re a totally different team. We understand what it takes to win, we’ve used that motivation, and we will continue to use that motivation. But last year is last year, and we’re not going into a Game 4 on someone else’s floor. We’re going into a Game 4 on our floor with a lot of experience in this type of situation. We’ll be ready. We love the challenge.”

Miami lost Game 4 in Dallas last year, the start of a three-game slide that ended with the Mavericks hoisting the title trophy.

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 do is remember the Western Conference finals when 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. I thought last night was a great bounce-back last night. It’s unfortunate we didn’t make a couple plays, and uncharacteristic, also.”

Uncharacteristic. That would also be a fine word to describe how James played in the finals last season.

He freely acknowledges that he “didn’t make enough plays” against the Mavericks a year ago, and the numbers – 17.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game – back that up, as do his well-chronicled fourth quarter struggles in that series. So far in this year’s finals, James is averaging 30.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 4 assists, and in the final minutes of Miami’s two wins in the series he’s done his part to slam the door on the Thunder.

“He’s been aggressive. He’s an aggressive player,” Thunder guard James Harden said. “He’s been aggressive all year, all postseason. He’s tall, strong, and physical. He’s a tough matchup. It takes five guys to really lock down on their offense because they’re a very offensive team especially with LeBron and (Dwyane) Wade.”

James is shooting 46 percent in the series, not even close to the 57 percent clip Kevin Durant is putting up for Oklahoma City. But here’s maybe one piece of proof to support that aggression notion Harden was speaking of – James is 25 for 29 from the foul line in the three games, while Durant is just 14 for 19 so far in the series.

James has done much of his work near the rim in these finals. But while it wasn’t his most memorable shot, perhaps the biggest one he hit all night in Miami’s Game 3 victory was a 3-pointer late in the third quarter, one of just five shots that the Heat made from outside the paint in that game. That shot put Miami up entering the fourth, and seemed to extend the Thunder defense just enough to allow James, Wade and Chris Bosh to create more in the lane late.

“The biggest evolution of great players is they always stay in constant state of being uncomfortable,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They don’t stay satisfied. And LeBron every summer has added something to his game. I’ve seen it when I’ve followed him from afar, and now that I’ve gotten to know him he’s added two, three, four different elements now to his game, the well-documented one of the post-up game, which we needed. But he continues to try to improve and stay uncomfortable. I think that’s a sign of greatness.”

Another sign of greatness? Rings.

James’ first is just two wins away, again. And yes, the memories of what went wrong in 2011 still drive Miami now.

“Experience don’t guarantee you anything,” Wade said. “It just lets you know I’ve been here before. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful for you. So for us we’ve got to continue … to make the game that we’re in, the moment that we’re in the biggest moment and the biggest game and not look back and not look forward too much. Obviously the team that was here that lost the championship last year, that burning sensation is going to be inside of us until we change that.”

A year ago, the talk was how James shied away from the biggest moments, the brightest moments.

It’s not happening now. Miami overcame a 10-point deficit in the third quarter of Game 3, becoming the first team in these playoffs to dig out of that large a second-half hole against the Thunder. James had eight points and four rebounds in the fourth quarter – no Thunder player had more than four points or two rebounds in those last 12 minutes.

Not pretty, but more than good enough to put the Heat back in the spot where last year’s finals went awry.

“I don’t give a damn how we get four,” James said. “We can win 32-31. It doesn’t matter to me. We can win any type of game. We can win a gritty game, a high-paced game, but we take every game as its own. … And at the end of the day, if we play to our identity like Spo always preaches to us, then we’ll give ourselves a good chance to win. Yeah, I don’t care how we get four.”

Miami grabs home court advantage

This is getting to be a trend for the Miami Heat. A nerve-wracking one for them, sure, but a trend nonetheless.

Go on the road, fall behind in a series, put the championship-or-bust season on the brink of collapse – and find a way to overcome it all.

The Heat landed at home early Friday, possibly disembarking from their plane for the last time this season. Miami resumes play in the NBA Finals at home against Oklahoma City on Sunday night, the start of a three-game homestand where the Heat – if they do what’s incredibly difficult in a title series and sweep the middle portion of the 2-3-2 format – can wrap up the franchise’s second crown.

“Very excited,” Heat guard Mario Chalmers said. “We get to play in front of our home crowd for the first time in the finals and we will be ready.”

A Game 2 win at Oklahoma City swung the home-court edge Miami’s way. And when the Heat have taken that edge away from their opponent on both previous occasions in these playoffs, they’ve been ultimately successful in the series.

“Any time you drop a game, especially now, it’s not a good feeling, and it stays with you all the way up until you get another chance to redeem yourself,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said. “We’re pretty familiar with that feeling.”

By now, they’re also familiar with overcoming that feeling.

- Miami lost Game 3 at Indiana in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, falling behind 2-1 in a series where Bosh was sidelined with a strained lower abdominal muscle and 2006 finals hero Dwyane Wade was laboring with worse-than-usual knee pain. So in Game 4, LeBron James finished with 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists in a virtuoso performance. Miami swept the rest of that series.

- Miami fell in Game 5 at home against Boston in the East finals, going down 3-2 and facing an elimination game on the Celtics’ home floor, a place where the Heat had won only once in their most recent 16 visits. James came up huge again, filling the stat sheet with 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists, the Heat won easily to send the series back to Miami and a Game 7 victory.

- Then in Game 1 of the finals, Miami saw a 13-point lead vanish in an 11-point loss. But in Game 2 on Thursday night, even after the Thunder whittled a 17-point Heat lead to two, Miami escaped with a 100-96 win after James finished with 32 points, Wade added 24, Bosh scored 16 points and grabbed 15 rebounds and Shane Battier put up 17 points for the second straight contest.

Season saved, at least for now.

“We were a confident team even before that, and that’s why I think it’s important to always compartmentalize and not get too carried away with the result,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You have to play to your identity and find a way. We didn’t think we played well in Game 1, and we still had an opportunity to win. This is going to be a very competitive series. We’re confident going home, but that doesn’t guarantee anything, and I think our guys have enough perspective to know that we’re going to have to earn this.”

In those three back-to-the-wall road wins, James has averaged 39 points. And he didn’t understate what Game 2 of the finals meant to the Heat.

“It meant everything,” James said.

So now the scene shifts to Miami, where the Heat lost their last two finals games last year – Game 2 against Dallas, where they collapsed in the final 7 minutes and blew a 15-point lead, and then Game 6 where the Mavericks closed out their championship.

The Heat are 36-7 in their building this season, the second-best home mark in the league behind San Antonio, which finished 34-6 at home. The last of those six Spurs home defeats was against Oklahoma City in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, as if Miami needed another reminder how capable – and how driven – the Thunder will be on their final road trip of the season.

“They’re going to come back strong,” James said. “They’re going to come back strong in our house, but we’re glad we split. And off to our arena, where we’re very good and our fans are looking forward to this.”

Spoelstra implored the Heat before Game 2 to “conquer the moment” and accept the challenge that came with playing in a building where the Thunder had been 9-0 in these playoffs.

It’ll be friendlier confines on Sunday night, but the message likely won’t change much.

“We seized the moment,” Wade said. “And Game 3 is going to be another one of these games, so we’ve got to figure out a way at home to protect home floor, especially in Game 3, and win it. 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.”

In other words, like they did when the stakes were highest against the Pacers and the Celtics in the previous two rounds.

That approach got them to the finals. A continuation of that approach could bring a championship, though the Heat are having none of that talk quite yet.

“Basically, it’s 0-0 now, so I don’t know about momentum,” Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. “You know they are going to watch the film and make adjustments. We’re going to watch film and a couple of things we’re going to have to change up a little bit. The series is just starting.”