— In the end, after the Miami Heat’s 110-100 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, after a frantic fourth quarter in which Kevin Durant scored 22 of his 40 points and his team cut the lead from 20 to eight, and after LeBron James again asserted himself as the greatest player on earth, Durant skipped the moral victories. He understood what had happened.
“Maybe too many nerves, or too excited, I don’t know man,” he said afterward — though he did know, honing right in on how Miami took a 32-17 lead after the first 12 minutes. “That was the game, the first quarter.”
The opening quarter, as much as the Heat’s six-game winning streak against the Thunder dating back to last summer’s Finals, underscored just how thoroughly Miami now owns Oklahoma City.
There’s reason to look at Durant’s fourth quarter and heap praise, and certainly what he did was impressive. But it also underscored that he and his teammates have not yet learned the lessons from last season’s Finals. The Thunder have not channeled the pain and experience into what it will take to beat the Heat if they face off again this summer, a possibility that is very likely.
The Thunder cannot let the Heat control them, mentally and physically, for such a long chunk of a game and expect to use their own explosive duo to make up the damage late.
The Heat have a trio of their own, led by LeBron and a level of play he has attained that ranks among the most impressive of all time. His streak of scoring at least 30 points while shooting 60 percent or better from the field ended at six games Thursday night, yet he poured in 39 points, pulled down 12 rebounds, notched seven assists and still managed to shoot 58.3 percent, a mere bucket away from pushing his record further. To say he was incredible would not do justice to how well he played.
Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have been a force recently, too, even if their own excellence has been overshadowed somewhat by LeBron and what is almost assuredly his fourth Most Valuable Player season.
During what is now a seven-game winning streak, Bosh, who scored 20 points and had 12 rebounds Thursday, has averaged 20.8 points and 8.4 rebounds a game. Wade, who had 13 points and eight assists against Oklahoma City, has averaged 22.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists during the winning streak.
All of which means the Heat have morphed, in the lead up to Sunday’s All-Star break, into the vision of the Big Three espoused two years ago: A team with a three-pronged attack so good it’s scary.
Bench depth? Who cares. When these guys play this well
— LeBron in particular, but the other two as well
— it’s hard to see anyone passive, afraid or nervous beating them.
The way to beat this kind of a team is to grit your teeth, prepare for battle and go after the Heat from the moment the ball is in the air with a fierce intensity and not a drop of fear. The Heat have learned to channel their potential into this level of play because they have been through the hellish hurt of losing in the NBA Finals. That awful, heartbreaking collapse two years ago purged them of their weaker ways, LeBron particularly, and made them what they are now.
The Thunder, who were swept out of the Finals by the Heat last summer and have dropped six straight to them, should know that same burn, should have learned from that same kind struggle, and should have come out fighting Thursday night the same way Miami did last season: With the kind of temerity only the battle-tested can rouse.
Instead, the Thunder laid down.
“They jumped on us, and it seems like we were, well, we were playing uphill the entire game,” Thunder head coach Scott Brooks said.
No one understands the power of the mental interfering with the physical like the Heat and LeBron, so it was interesting to see Miami mentally dominate Oklahoma City. The Thunder looked deflated, they looked knocked on their heels
— they looked defeated
— from the very start of the game.
The fourth quarter? A nice effort. A reminder of how great Durant is, and how capable the Thunder are even against a team like the Heat.
But the Thunder have to be past effort, past pride, past moral victories, past spectacular fourth quarters that can’t mask the three before them. With James Harden now in Houston, it remains unclear if Oklahoma City has the tools to topple the Heat in a seven-game series.
The Thunder know that question looms, too, or else why play Durant for 47 minutes and 32 seconds and Russell Westbrook for almost as long? This was a must-win game, a game they desperately needed in order to show themselves something. And what they showed themselves was weakness.
“We have to always be sharp and never let our guard down,” LeBron said afterward.
He gets it. Greatness is urgency, it is confidence, and it having lost enough to put the fear aside and run on a hunger and drive that drowns it out. It’s time Oklahoma City understands that, too, or gets used to what is now a clear level of dominance LeBron James and his teammates have learned to lord over the best team in the Western Conference.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.