OKLAHOMA CITY -- LeBron James made his statement early.
That was significant, because he couldn't make it late.
Forced to close without their leader who already had made his MVP statement, the Miami Heat built enough leads early and often to hold off the Oklahoma City Thunder 103-81 Thursday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Smacked across the face while completing a dramatic dunk midway through the fourth quarter, James was forced to the locker room while holding a towel to his face, his night complete with 33 points on 15-of-22 shooting, with seven rebounds.
The Heat led by 16 at that point and held on from there, behind 24 points from guard Dwyane Wade, 22 from center Chris Bosh and eight rebounds off the bench from Chris Andersen.
James now will have two days off before the Heat return to action Sunday at AmericanAirlines Arena against the Chicago Bulls, having closed this three-week trip at 5-12, with victories in 10 of their last 12 games.
The Heat held on despite 28 points from Thunder forward Kevin Durant.
It was, without question, a significant night for the Thunder, with point guard Russell Westbrook back in the lineup for the first time in nearly two months.
And yet there, the day before, was Durant insisting otherwise.
"It's not a championship game," he said. "It's not a deciding game of the playoffs. This game is not going to get us in the playoffs or knock us out."
The other side? From the outset it was clear this one was more than one of 82 regular-season obligations.
How much did this one mean to the Heat?
So much that they went essentially put together four of their best efforts of the season.
First there was a 19-point second period lead that was down to seven at halftime and then five early in the third quarter.
Then there was a 22-point third-quarter lead that dissolved to 11 entering the fourth quarter after a Durant-inspired 12-1 Oklahoma City run.
From there, there were eight straight Heat points to open the fourth quarter, as Durant and James watched from the bench.
And then, at the close, enough to hold on amid James' absence.
By then, James had done plenty of damage, amid his reestablished MVP campaign, having scored 16 in the first quarter and 21 in the first half. It was James' fourth straight game with 33 or more points.
Durant, the MVP apparent in some quarters, had his moments, too, although quality defense from Shane Battier helped limited him to 10-of-22 shooting.
But with Wade particularly spry and Bosh hitting needed jumpers, the Heat closed the gap on the Indiana Pacers atop the Eastern Conference and the Thunder for the NBA's best overall record.
Unlike the teams' first meeting when an early 18-point lead turned into a 112-95 loss on Jan. 29 at AmericanAirlines Arena, this time there was ample pushback.
The Thunder had Westbrook back after he had missed the previous 27 games following his third knee procedure in six months. He was in the starting lineup, but on a minutes restriction.
With a 16-2 run early in the third period, the Heat were able to eventually push to that 22-point lead in the quarter. But with Durant taking a more aggressive stance, the Thunder ended the third quarter on a 12-1 run to move within 76-65 entering the fourth.
Just like the teams' first meeting, when the Thunder rallied to victory from that early 18-point deficit, the Thunder thundered back again, this time after falling behind by 19 early in the second period, with a Durant basket drawing them within 43-34 with 4:44 left before halftime.
All the while, it wasn't until 3:42 was left in before halftime before James scored his first points of the second period.
James closed the first half with those 21 points, the most by a Heat player in a first half this season, but by then the Thunder stood within 54-47.
The problem for the Heat, just as it was in the first meeting, was turnovers, with 13 that led to 20 first-half Thunder points.
The Heat, and particularly James, could not have played much better at the outset.
James, who made his first five shots, scored the Heat's first 12 points, the most consecutive points he's ever scored for his team to start a game. He closed the opening period 8 of 10 for 16 points, with the eight field goals the most by a Heat player in a period this season.
The Heat led 34-17 at the close of that opening period, their .762 field-goal percentage in the period their highest percentage in any quarter this season. Their 16 baskets tied their season high for a quarter.
The Heat have now won four of the past dive matchups, including three of their last four visit.
The Thunder were seeking their first sweep of the two-game series since 2009-10, the season before James, Wade and Bosh came together for the Heat.
The Thunder had been idle since last Thursday's 107-103 road victory over the Lakers, with victories in 15 of their previous 17 games. They entered on a nine-game home winning streak.
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