Durant rises, LeBron shrinks in fourth
"Stay in front of him."
"You can do it."
Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha, a Swiss native, whispered these things to himself — all right, in French; we translated for you — while guarding LeBron James in the fourth quarter Tuesday night in what ended up a 105-94 Oklahoma City victory against Miami in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
That last one, "Mon Dieu!" — the French equivalent of "holy you-know-what" — was the only one said loud enough for anybody to hear. It was instinctual, a response to his teammate Kevin Durant.
Thabo had watched Durant bang down big-time shot after big-time shot — driving, pulling up, with a hand in his face, from deep, with the Heat trying player after player on him, to no avail. Thabo watched Durant score 17 fourth-quarter points, an absolute beast when this Game 1 reached critical mass.
Mon Dieu indeed, Thabo.
What everybody else was thinking was: Where the hell did LeBron disappear to this time?
All of this talk of his redemption, his growth, his ring, his Finals, his time and, when the game was hanging there waiting to be taken, LeBron underwhelmed with a very passive seven points while Durant rose to meet the moment, grabbing what he believes is his.
"He’s always aggressive. Any time he’s on the floor, tonight 46 minutes, he’s always aggressive," LeBron said of KD.
The better question is: Why aren’t you, LeBron?
Whatever I or anybody else thinks of The Decision, the pep rally, the megalomania, the hubris, it is impossible to ignore the talent, the just freak-of-nature size and strength and ability that LeBron James possesses. We have seen what he is capable of when locked in, turned on and driving to the basket.
And I find myself wondering why we do not see this guy, not consistently, in the fourth quarters of games. I know I am not supposed to say this, but, even now, after his summer of growth, LeBron seems to lack in the art of clutch.
Of course, it somehow has gotten twisted again. LeBron is not to blame, not at all, just look at how he played for most of Game 1, look at his gaudy numbers.
And it all sounds good, makes sense even, if you ignore the fourth quarter. Winning time is what legendary coach Bill Parcells loved to call this, and he liked to say we learn what a player is all about in said moments.
In LeBron’s NBA, we have to suspend that reality.
We pretend the fourth quarter does not define players because for LeBron, somewhat inexplicably, the fourth is an anathema to his game. A guy who can be so dominant tends to go away when games get decided.
So Tuesday is being laid at Dwyane Wade’s feet. He once again in these playoffs looked old and slow. All of this most certainly is true, so much so that Wade resorted to saying "I’m a winner" after the game, when questioned about his ineffectiveness.
If Wade is an aging albatross, LeBron probably needed to take that into account when making The Decision. And Miami certainly received more contributions than LeBron or anybody else thought possible from Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers.
Mostly, though, we cannot praise LeBron for single-handedly defeating Boston in Game 6 with his strength of will and angry face, and then act like asking him to do so in Game 1 is too much.
The fourth quarter is where legacies are made. It is supposed to be the domain of the superstar, and we constantly are fed that there is no bigger star than LeBron. He is the MVP of the NBA, after all.
Yet we have arrived at yet another NBA Finals in which LeBron seems incapable of rising to meet the moment. This is not true. He is capable. We have seen him do this, in Game 6 against Boston, in Game 4 against Indianapolis.
So where does this guy disappear to? Why is LeBron so often overwhelmed — by Dirk Nowitzki a year ago and by now Kevin Durant — in such moments?
When asked what happened in the fourth quarter, LeBron said this was as simple as Durant and Russell Westbrook making big-time shots.
So how do you do this, he was asked.
"You take them with confidence, take more shots with confidence, and at the end of the day you live with it," LeBron said.
How are we still here? How are we still talking about trying to take shots with confidence? How can you be the MVP and be afraid when KD — all 23 years of him — is just dancing in the moment?
Stats, again, fail to properly summarize LeBron’s game. He finished with 30 points and nine rebounds. In winning time, in that fourth quarter, LeBron failed.
A lot of this was the work of Sefolosha — The Swiss Menace. He started Game 1 on Wade. Durant had LeBron duty, and he did a good job. Just like in the San Antonio series, though, where Sefolosha handled Tony Parker, he ended up on LeBron for the fourth quarter.
"No. We didn’t talk about it too much," Sefolosha said. "I came back in. I think D-Wade wasn’t on the court. I said, ‘Let me take a shot at it.’ "
Did Thunder coach Scott Brooks object?
"No, no," Sefolosha said. "I like that kind of challenge. I look at it as an opportunity to show the world what I can do. I talk to myself to get me going. I speak in French. I remind myself what I have to do."
My college roommate, who was a far better French student at Mizzou than me, was stumped when I asked what the French word for "not clutch" was.
There is not one, she said.
There is only the English, and for now it still is "LeBron."