The crowd noise was there. The cameras were there. The intensity on the court was there.
All that was missing was for the Larry O’Brien trophy to be painted on center court.
The Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder played Tuesday night in front of the biggest recorded crowd at American Airlines Arena. The matchup was the centerpiece of the NBA Christmas Day lineup, but it might as well have been Game 6 of the 2012 NBA Finals. Both the Heat and Thunder showed up at the top of their conferences and with some momentum on their side. Miami came in riding a four-game winning streak while Oklahoma City won 12 of their last 13 games and had history on their side in Finals rematches on Christmas Day with the championship loser winning four out of the last five games before tonight.
The last Finals winner to also win the Christmas Day rematch the following season before Tuesday night was the Heat in 2006.
The game became a series of streaks following a fast 15-3 Miami start. The Heat got production early from Mario Chalmers who scored 12 point in the first quarter. The Thunder were able to remain close in the first half thanks to the play of Serge Ibaka and their ability to get to the free throw line. LeBron James did his part early in the first half for the Heat scoring 19 points.
In the second half the defense and intensity of both teams picked up as the lead changed hands constantly. After a slow start Kevin Durant began hitting his shot to help the Thunder cause. Every time either Miami of Oklahoma City threatened to pull away the other team went on a small run.
Still, as the game progressed into the fourth quarter one of the traits that helped the Heat beat the Thunder in the Finals and win their second championship began to come to the surface.
That trait is Miami’s patience in crunch time.
The first instance of this being in play was early in the fourth quarter as Russell Westbrook was fouled hard by both Dwyane Wade and Shane Battier in a transition layup attempt following a steal. Westbrook took offense to the foul and has to be pulled away by a referee. The foul was initially called a flagrant one on Battier on the floor, but was downgraded to a regular after video review. While the incident led to technical fouls being called on Wade and Ibaka it did more to show Westbrook’s frustration during the game.
The second instance where patience was key came in the final minute of the game. On offense with only a one point lead James was able to find Chris Bosh open for an easy dunk after Kendrick Perkins left the paint to help cover him on defense. After the following two possessions had both teams trading points the Thunder had the ball with slightly over 15 seconds left on the clock.
On that possession Durant missed a three point shot attempt to tie the game. Perkins was able to tip the ball off the miss to Westbrook who then attempted a three point shot that missed. Bosh grabbed the rebound off the miss and was fouled immediately. After the foul call Westbrook let his frustration about not getting a foul called on his shot attempt show as he smacked the scorer’s table while yelling at the referees. That led to a technical foul being called on Westbrook and Ray Allen to make the subsequent free throw followed by Bosh making his two free throw shots, essentially putting the game away for the Heat.
The biggest area where patience showed in the game though was at the free throw line. While the Thunder were able to get to the line more, the Heat shot a perfect 19 for 19 free throws. Oklahoma City finished the game missing six of their 38 shots at the line, the exact margin of victory for Miami.
This game lived up to the Christmas Day game hype and more. It also showed that while the Thunder have not missed a beat since the Finals, their youth is still showing.
Patience is a virtue, and the Heat simply have more of it. At this moment that makes them the better team.