MIAMI — This is the kind of experience that can't be bought at the free-agent store.
It can't even be traded for.
Sam Presti told us there are no shortcuts, that the making of a contender is a process, not an event. And suddenly, the process is turning into a procession.
Barring a historic comeback, a championship awaits Miami. With three straight victories, including two straight in South Beach, the Heat served notice there will be no butting in line.
The dues-paying organization known as the National Basketball Association is on the verge of crowning another champion forged in the furnace of Finals disappointment and adversity.
One year after experiencing what the Oklahoma City Thunder is now experiencing, the Heat moved within a victory of the title with a 104-98 victory over Oklahoma City Tuesday night at American Airlines Arena.
Miami leads the series 3-1. If the Thunder can rally to force a Game 7 next Tuesday in Oklahoma City it would become the first team to climb out of such a series hole since the NBA went to its 2-3-2 Finals format in 1985.
No one has come back from this to win a title.
They've amazed and surprised before, but if you're looking for hope the biggest surprise of all is still in store, don't go looking for proof in the last three games. You won't find it.
Miami's Big Three has never been bigger.
Oklahoma City's big three is actually the big two and three-quarters. Russell Westbrook's 43-point performance was suitable for framing, dimmed but not diminished by his end-of-game gaffe that prompted him to foul Mario Chalmers. It won't shut up his critics, but it should.
Kevin Durant's 28 points were what we've come to expect from him, minus the closing-time heroics. Blame/credit Miami.
James Harden? He's putting up a gallant effort, especially on defense where he's guarding the world's most dangerous all-around offensive weapon. And we're one Miami win away from hearing all about the Best Player on the Planet, too.
But Harden's play early in the fourth quarter was dreadful. Two missed three-pointers and a bad turnover were almost eclipsed by a dramatic steal. But it appeared Harden tried to hard to draw a foul and missed a layup that could have given Oklahoma City a lead and much-needed momentum.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks isn't buying the experience excuse.
“I think they just made a few extra plays down the stretch. Sometimes it comes down to a couple of plays,” Brooks said.
“Experience has nothing to do with that. We're all pros, and good ones at that. We've never used that as an excuse, and it's not an excuse.”
It's a noble stance made for one reason: The Thunder doesn't want its young stars looking for a crutch, a reason to explain why all this is happening. Makes perfect sense, for Brooks.
So he's right, about the big plays, and wrong about the experience.
Ask Dwyane Wade if he thinks the Heat’s loss to Dallas in last year’s Finals, leading 2-1 before losing three straight, makes a difference.
“This team, we had to go through something to get to the point that we are resilient, and that's going through a heartbreaking loss in the Finals last year,” Wade said. “Really having to go back and gut-check ourselves.
“But you've got to crawl before you walk. That's what we did.”
It's possible the Thunder could gut-check itself by tipoff Thursday night. A franchise so loaded with talent and character has flattened most every learning curve, accelerating the development beyond all expectations. Again, this is not down 0-2 coming back from San Antonio.
The Thunder, of course, gave its fans hope Tuesday night. Durant pull-up jumper with 4:21 left gave the Thunder its first and only lead of the fourth quarter at 94-92. He attempted only one other shot, a missed desperation 3-pointer down five with 13.6 seconds left.
Miami's Big Three were never bigger than in the three-possession stretch that decided Game 4, and most likely the series.
Chris Bosh went hard to the basket off a pick-and-roll with Wade to tie it. It was his biggest basket of a gritty 13-point, nine-rebound effort, but it wasn't his biggest play. The Heat's third wheel, the player Oklahoma City's own Skip Bayless once called “Bosh Spice,” went to the floor for a loose ball in the first half to provide the emotional fuel for Miami's comeback from a 17-point deficit.
LeBron James' 3-pointer at 2:53 was the kind of shot he's been repeatedly criticized for passing up, and everyone in Oklahoma wishes he had again. The time he took and made the biggest shot of his career, putting the Heat up 97-94.
Another aggressive drive, this one by Wade, capped the Big Three flurry, putting Miami up 99-94, a commanding position with 2:18 left.
A position that has Miami awaiting a title and the Thunder feeling a lot like the Heat of 2011.