MIAMI — It was an implausible sequence, spanning only a few minutes.
LeBron James was cramping so badly midway through the fourth quarter Tuesday night that he had to be carried off the court, seemingly taking with him the NBA title hopes of the Miami Heat.
(PHOTO: Mario Chalmers of the Miami Heat looks to pass against Kevin Durant, left, and Serge Ibaka of the Miami Heat during the third quarter in Game 4 of the NBA Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, Tuesday, June 19, 2012.)
He returned shortly thereafter to lift the spirits of a city.
James capped one of the guttiest performances in NBA Finals history by making the three-point shot that put Miami ahead in a spine-tingling 104-98 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 4.
Now the Heat is one victory from hoisting a championship trophy, holding a 3-1 advantage in a best-of-seven series it can close out here Thursday in Game 5 at AmericanAirlines Arena.
On the plus side for the Thunder, it could make history by becoming the first team to rally from such a daunting deficit in the Finals to win a title. None of the previous 30 teams in the same spot could do it.
There was already a party atmosphere in South Beach after James shook off his leg cramps to make the go-ahead three-pointer with 2 minutes 51 seconds left, providing the Heat a 97-94 lead.
“Playing on one leg,” Heat center Chris Bosh said, “I don’t know how he did it.”
James nearly finished with a triple-double, collecting 26 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds in 44 minutes.
But he could never shake the discomfort from his cramps, limping to the timeout huddle with 55 seconds left. He stayed on the bench as Mario Chalmers drove for a scoop layup that extended the Heat’s advantage to 101-96 with 44 seconds to go.
“It’s basically like your body just shuts down, your legs shut down on you and there’s nothing really you can do about it,” James said.
Oklahoma City made one last push behind Russell Westbrook, who banked in a jumper with 40 seconds left to pull the Thunder to within 101-98.
But a subsequent jump ball was tipped to Chalmers, who was fouled by Westbrook despite there only being a few seconds left on the shot clock. He made two free throws to secure the Heat’s third consecutive win in the series.
Chalmers finished with 25 points, an unexpected boost that matched the scoring output of more ballyhooed teammate Dwyane Wade.
Westbrook was the most brilliant player on the floor for much of the game, scoring a career playoff high 43 points on 20-for-32 shooting. He scored 13 consecutive points for Oklahoma City to start the fourth quarter amid an array of driving layups, floaters and pull-up jumpers.
It wasn’t enough.
“It really doesn’t mean nothing,” Westbrook said. “We didn’t come out with the win.”
The Thunder couldn’t find any reliable scoring options beyond Westbrook and Kevin Durant, who had 28 points and gave his team a short-lived 94-92 lead with a 19-foot jumper. No other player on Oklahoma City’s roster finished in double figures.
James’ cramps intensified after he drove toward the basket and slipped with 5:49 left. He rose and started to run gingerly back down the court before Wade blocked Derek Fisher’s layup, starting a possession that ended with a short jumper by James.
But James could not gut it out for long, getting carried off the court by Juwan Howard and trainer Jay Sabol during a timeout with 5:15 remaining.
“I wanted to walk to the bench,” James said, “but my legs wouldn’t allow me.”
The crowd roared as James checked back in with 4:05 to go and the Heat trailing, 94-92. A driving layup by Bosh tied the score before James elevated for the three-pointer over Thabo Sefolosha that will likely be shown on an endless loop on highlight shows.
“The ball was swung to me and the shot clock was going down,” James said. “I just wanted to step up and make a play and I was able to drain that three and give us a lift.”