Heat doesn’t wilt under late pressure, beats Thunder, 91-85

MIAMI — These were the situations that felled them last year, when tough moments often resulted in soul-sucking defeats.

Now the Miami Heat looks like a team that can stand up to just about anything in the NBA Finals.

The Heat could be halfway to a championship after gutting out a 91-85 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 3 on Sunday night at American Airlines Arena.

LeBron James, the Miami star forward whose epic late-game struggles last year made him a national punch line, continued to place the laugh track on pause by scoring eight of his 29 points in the fourth quarter.

Dwyane Wade added 25 points, seven assists and seven rebounds for the Heat, which overcame a 10-point, third-quarter deficit to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 4 is here Tuesday.

“It’s just about experience,” Wade said, alluding to the Heat’s Finals do-over after losing to the Dallas Mavericks last year. “Experience is not overrated at all.”

Neither is the ability to make free throws.

The Heat made 31 of 35 freebies, including five of six in the final 1 minute 19 seconds. Those represented the game’s final five points after Russell Westbrook’s 17-foot jumper had pulled Oklahoma City to within 86-85.

The young and athletic Thunder looked frazzled during two crucial stretches that saddled it with a second consecutive defeat.

Oklahoma City played the final 5:41 of the third quarter without Kevin Durant after the star forward picked up his fourth foul. Thunder Coach Scott Brooks also sent Westbrook to the bench with 5:01 left in the quarter after Westbrook had committed two quick turnovers and missed a pair of shots.

“I took him out to calm him down,” Brooks said.

It also seemed to rev up the Heat. Miami went from 10 points down to two points up when James made a three-pointer from the corner, capping a 15-3 run to end the quarter. Durant and Westbrook could only watch in disgust.

“I hate sitting on the bench, especially with fouls,” said Durant, who finished with 25 points on 11-for-19 shooting.

Said Westbrook: “It’s coach’s decision. Got to live with it.”

James was also in the midst of an 8-0 Heat run that commenced midway through the fourth quarter, making a pair of free throws and then driving for a layup with 3:47 left in which he drew Durant’s fifth foul. James made the ensuing free throw to give Miami an 84-77 advantage.

“I’m just trying to make game-changing plays … just trying to step up in key moments and be there for my teammates,” James said.

There were mostly regrets for Oklahoma City, which made only 15 of 24 free throws. Westbrook had 19 points but James Harden was a non-factor with nine points on two-for-10 shooting and Thabo Sefolosha bounced an inbounds pass directly to Wade with 16 seconds left.

Not every moment was a thing of beauty for Miami either. The Heat shot 33.3% in the second half and committed eight turnovers in the fourth quarter.

But James made a couple of layups and Chris Bosh capped his second consecutive double-double (10 points, 11 rebounds) with two late free throws, giving the Heat just enough.

“We’re at a point right now, whatever it takes,” Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Miami finds itself in a familiar spot, having also won two of the first three games in the Finals last year. The Heat would not win again in the series.

They’re vowing that things will be different this time.

“We carry that pain with us,” Bosh said. “We think about it every day, and that really helps us to succeed in this series.”