Miami's LeBron James, right, looks to drive past Oklahoma City's… (Robert Duyos / South Florida…)
MIAMI — In an implausible sequence spanning only a few minutes, LeBron James went from being carried off the court to carrying his team.
And now the Miami Heat finds itself one victory from hoisting a championship trophy.
Shrugging off a leg cramp that forced him to depart Game 4 of the NBA Finals midway through the fourth quarter, James returned to make the three-pointer that put the Heat ahead in an eventual 104-98 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Miami holds a 3-1 advantage in a best-of-seven series it can close out here Thursday night in Game 5.
There was already a party atmosphere in South Beach after James made the go-ahead three-pointer with 2 minutes 50 seconds left, providing the Heat with a 97-94 lead.
James nearly finished with a triple-double, collecting 26 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds in 44 sublime minutes.
But James remained in such discomfort that he limped to the timeout huddle with 55 seconds left and stayed on the bench as Mario Chalmers drove for a scoop layup that gave the Heat a 101-96 cushion with 44 seconds to go.
Russell Westbrook, a game-long menace to Miami, made a driving layup to bring the Thunder to within 101-98 with 44 seconds left, but a subsequent jump ball ended up in the hands of Chalmers, who made two free throws to secure the Heat’s third consecutive triumph in the series.
Westbrook finished with 43 points on 20-of-32 shooting. He scored 11 consecutive points for the Thunder to start the fourth quarter amid an array of driving layups, floaters and pull-up jumpers.
It wasn’t enough.
Dwyane Wade and Chalmers had 25 points apiece for Miami, more than offsetting Kevin Durant’s 28 points for Oklahoma City.
James suffered his injury when he drove toward the basket and fell with 5:48 left. He rose and started to run gingerly back down the court before Wade blocked Derek Fisher’s layup, triggering a possession that ended in a short jumper by James.
But James could not gut it out for long, having to be carried off the court with 5:15 remaining. He knelt on a pad along the baseline and was replaced by James Jones.
The crowd roared shortly thereafter as James walked to the scorer’s table to check back into the game with 4:05 to go and the Heat trailing, 94-92.
It was difficult to recall that Miami had trailed by as many as 17 points in the first quarter the way things veered sharply in its favor in the second.
Heat 79, Thunder 75 (end of third quarter)
Miami could be 12 minutes from taking a commanding lead in the NBA Finals.
The Heat also could be that far away from another Game 4 meltdown.
Miami led by as many as seven points in the third quarter before the Thunder closed it with a Russell Westbrook jumper and a free throw from Kevin Durant.
The quarter was largely about ticky-tack fouls, including a couple against Oklahoma City's James Harden and one against Derek Fisher for running into LeBron James while fighting through a screen. Fisher sat on the floor for several seconds, staring at James in disbelief.
Harden picked up three fouls in the quarter, giving him four for the game.
James leads the Heat with 20 points, but Mario Chalmers has given them a boost with 13.
Westbrook has 26 points and Durant 22 for the Thunder. It might not be enough.
Thunder 49, Heat 46 (halftime)
All that momentum Oklahoma City had in the first quarter quickly dissipated when things took a sharp turn toward the Heat.
Miami made four three-pointers in the second quarter and persevered through a frightening moment when Dwyane Wade appeared to hurt his back but remained in the game.
Wade fell awkwardly after having his shot blocked by Serge Ibaka with 7 minutes 18 seconds left in the quarter. He stood in anguish for several moments before crouching in pain along the baseline.
The play came shortly after Wade had tied the score at 35-35 on a three-pointer that capped a 19-2 run by Miami spanning the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second.
Wade and LeBron James have 10 points each for the Heat, which also received an emphatic exhortation from Chris Bosh after the big man dived for a loose ball along the baseline. Bosh rose, flexed his muscles and appeared to be imploring the crowd to get loud. It worked.
It was difficult to recall that the Heat had trailed by as many as 17 points in the first quarter the way things were going in the second. Miami received contributions from nearly everyone, with Norris Cole, James Jones and Mario Chalmers each making a three-pointer.
Wade had only one basket after his fall, on a baseline jumper late in the quarter. Shane Battier's three-point attempt at the halftime buzzer that would have tied the score rattled out.
Russell Westbrook continued to make highlight-caliber plays for the Thunder and has 18 points on nine-for-15 shooting. Kevin Durant hasn't been quite as productive, scoring 12 points but making only four of 10 shots.