SAN ANTONIO (AP) — LeBron James scored 24 points while playing with the aggression and ferocity that everyone expects of the four-time MVP, leading the Miami Heat to an 81-76 lead over the San Antonio Spurs after three quarters of Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night.
James scored 11 points in the first quarter and also had eight rebounds, and Dwyane Wade added 22 points for the defending champions, who trail the Spurs 2-1 in the series.
Tony Parker showed no ill effects from a sore right hamstring, scoring 15 points and dishing out eight assists for the Spurs. Kawhi Leonard added 12 points and seven rebounds, but the Spurs committed 12 turnovers.
Game 5 in the best-of-seven series is Sunday night in San Antonio.
Chris Bosh had 14 points and eight boards and Ray Allen scored 11 for the Heat. Miami had 42 points in the paint after managing 32 in the Game 3 blowout loss and need one win in the next two games to get the series back to South Beach.
Tim Duncan scored 14 points and Danny Green added 10 for the Spurs.
James was an abysmal 7 for 21 for 15 points in Game 3, and he promised to be better in Game 4. He delivered on that the only way he knows how in the first half.
Every time James snatched a Spurs miss off the glass he thundered up the court, attacking the back-pedaling defense for easy layups that simply haven't been there for him this series.
He made six of his first seven shots, controlling the tempo and responding when the Spurs threatened to run away with the game in the first six minutes.
Parker strained his right hamstring during Game 3, leaving many in San Antonio to fear that the big step forward they made with their win in Game 3 came at a hefty price. But Parker deemed himself "ready to go" at the team's morning shootaround and was in the starting lineup on Thursday night.
He sure looked fine early. All the old Parker tricks were there in the first quarter — a pull-up jumper to open the game, a driving layup and then another off the pick-and-roll. Leonard then buried a 3-pointer to give the Spurs a 15-5 lead early in the game.
Then James made the move the Heat have been waiting for all series.
He took the ball coast-to-coast on two straight possessions during run that tied the game at 19. James then hit two mid-range jumpers — an area that has been a struggle for him — to cap the 14-2 surge and give Miami a 25-21 lead.
In an unusual move, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra decided to shuffle the starting lineup in the middle of a series. He inserted the sharp-shooting Mike Miller for big man Udonis Haslem in an effort to create more room for James and Wade to penetrate to the rim.
Miller was 9 for 10 on 3-pointers in his first three games of the finals, but was scoreless in the first three quarters.
After the scintillating start, the Spurs got sloppy. Turnover after turnover allowed the Heat to get out in transition. When James turned the seventh Spurs turnover into his fourth layup of the night and a 37-28 lead, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called timeout and ripped into his star.
The Spurs responded with a 7-0 burst and the seldom-used Boris Diaw scored seven points in an 11-2 run at the end of the first half to tie it at 49.
James also finally got some help from his All-Star teammates, including a couple of tough putbacks from Bosh in the third quarter. Wade was averaging 2.7 points in the second half in the finals, but had eight in the third quarter of Game 4.
If there was a common theme in the first three games, it was the curiously meek performance from James. He entered this series after perhaps the best season of his career, a versatile and efficient freight train that had taken the league and made it his own.
He was out to show just how far he'd come from 2007, when the Spurs dismantled his Cleveland Cavaliers in the finals and exposed the rising star as a player who could be neutralized if he was forced to settle for jump shots. James promised that he would not be so easily contained this time around, and .565 shooting percentage during the regular season, including .406 on 3-pointers, seemed to support that theory.
But the Spurs had done to him in these finals exactly what they did to him six years ago. They've clogged the paint with two big men — Duncan and Tiago Splitter — and surrounded him on the perimeter with a pack of hungry young wings led by Leonard and Green.
The results had been unlike anything the league has grown used to seeing from its biggest star. James entered Game 4 averaged 16.7 points on 38.9 percent shooting. He was just 3 for 13 from 3-point range in the first three games, and even more startling, only had six free throw attempts.
"I'm putting all the pressure on my chest, on my shoulders to come through for our team," James said. "That's the way it is."
It would be hard to find much higher stakes than Game 4 for the Heat. No team in NBA history has come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the championship.