MIAMI, Fla. — LeBron James limped to the scorer's table with 4:36 left in the game, and American Airlines Arena came alive.
So did the Miami Heat.
Its hero was returning. Its hope remained.
Before game officials could get LeBron checked in, Kevin Durant had sunk a silky jumper that gave the Thunder a two-point lead, and the NBA Finals seemed to be turning Oklahoma City's way.
But even on one leg, LeBron is a heck of a ballplayer. Step aside, Willis Reed. Another limping legend has been born in the NBA Finals.
With 2:51 left in a tied Game 4, LeBron let fly a 3-pointer that swished and sent the clear message that this pivotal night, this game that very well could determine the NBA champion, was going Miami's way.
The Heat beat the Thunder 104-98 in a rousing Game 4 that will be remembered for Russell Westbrook's monster game (43 points on 20-of-32 shooting) and Mario Chalmers' Heat heroics (25 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter).
But Game 4 became an instant hardwood classic mostly because LeBron shook off cramps — that a few minutes earlier wouldn't even let him walk off the court — and willed the Heat to victory.
“He was just trying to will his body to get in there and make something happen,” said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. “That 3 was just sheer will and competitiveness, to contribute in some way.”
LeBron was hurting, no doubt about it. With 55 seconds left and the Heat still up just three, Spoelstra even took out LeBron, because Miami seemed to be playing four-on-five.
Had the Thunder known that LeBron indeed had turned into a peg-leg pirate, maybe Thabo Sefolosha crowds him more on that 3-pointer. Maybe Thabo dares LeBron to drive to the basket, which you'd never otherwise invite him to do.
After all, LeBron would finish with 26 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, typical night at the Finals office for LeBron. He was having a landmark game — driving down Triple Double Avenue — even before the cramps sucked the breath from Miami faithful.
But Thabo didn't know, and truth is, LeBron himself might not have known he didn't have much left, that the cramps would return. That he would in turn guard Thabo on the Thunder possessions, because LeBron was too gimpy to chase Kevin Durant or Westbrook.
That 3-point shot would be his last gasp to secure victory.
“The ball was swung to me, and the shot clock was going down,” LeBron said. “I just wanted to step up and try to make a play. I happy I was able to come through.”
Forty-two years ago, Reed limped onto the court just before Game 7 of the NBA Finals. He didn't play long; his strained groin wouldn't allow it. But Reed nailed an opening jumpshot, and his Knickerbockers blitzed the Lakers.
Same plot, only this came at game's end.
“I don't know how he did it, but … fortunately we didn't look back after that,” said the Heat's Chris Bosh. “That's what being in this Finals is about, giving everything that you have until you can't walk anymore.
“We knew that we weren't going to have anything left in the tank. And it's kind of ironic because he was the main guy that said it, ‘You should be totally exhausted after this game.' And just for him to set the example, that was huge for us.”
Well, the Heat called it, and who could argue? Moments earlier, Juwan Howard and the Heat trainer carried LeBron off the court. Oklahoma City fathers had to be planning a parade route about that time.
Then back came LeBron, and now Miami leads the series 3-1, with history and momentum and Game 5 homecourt advantage all on its side.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.