Heat still touting LeBron James as the MVP
Whenever LeBron James gets asked about the NBA MVP award, he seems to answer carefully, as if to avoid any suggestion that he's campaigning for his third trophy.
In fairness, James doesn't have to do much lobbying.
Everyone else in the Miami Heat locker room takes care of that. And they say the James-for-MVP movement should be going strong.
Not only did the Heat win a marquee game on Wednesday night - they beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 98-93 - but James won a head-to-head matchup against the player who is generally considered to be his top competition in the MVP race. He finished with 34 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds, while Kevin Durant had his 30-point night also marked by a career-worst nine turnovers.
''Every night I go out on the court, I try to play like the MVP for our team,'' James told the reporters surrounding his locker after the game. ''I've always said that. ... It doesn't matter to me. For us, we got better tonight as a team. And I was the MVP for our team and just trying to lead those guys, lead us to a victory. That's what it's all about.''
James might have been considered a lock for the MVP award a month ago, when he and the Heat were both rolling along.
But just about everything after the All-Star break has been a grind for Miami, which gets Thursday off - James said he would be looking for the city's best massage - and plays host to Memphis on Friday.
Scoring is down by nearly nine points a game. The Heat aren't shooting as well, teams are shooting a better percentage against them, and that's all happened while James has dealt with injury woes like a dislocated left ring finger, an achy elbow and the aftereffects of banging his head on the court in a hard fall against Phoenix last month.
On Wednesday, James twisted his ankle falling over a videographer, winced and grabbed his back after some inadvertent contact with a referee, took what he thought was excessive contact twice while attempting dunks - getting pulled down by Russell Westbrook from behind on one of those, a play James later described as ''scary'' and ''dangerous'' - and gritted his teeth after his finger started bothering him again down the stretch.
And even shooting 37 percent, Miami still won.
''I think he's the best two-way player in this league,'' Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. ''He does it in a night-in, night-out basis and he does it in a way where most teams would not ask a player to shoulder that type of responsibility. But the fact remains: He must play at an MVP level at both ends of the court for us. We've talked about him playing like a defensive player of the year, to defend all five positions, while at the same time playing four positions offensively.''
James' two biggest plays against the Thunder may be ones that don't show up in the box score.
Oklahoma City had two possessions in the final 4 minutes where it had shots for a one-point lead. James snuffed out both. He ran Westbrook down and blocked a layup with 3:49 left - ironically, it was at the same spot on the court where Westbrook grabbed him around the left shoulder and right side of his waist and sent him sprawling to the floor two quarters earlier - to preserve a 92-91 Heat edge.
Then with 1:30 remaining, the score then 94-93, Durant backed James down on the low post and tried a turnaround. James contested it well, so well that not only did Durant miss, but his shot bounced off the top of the backboard.
Oklahoma City didn't score again, and James and the Heat were soon enjoying their payback win. On March 25, James was held to 17 and the Heat lost at Oklahoma City 103-87.
''A great player,'' Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of James after Wednesday's game. ''You're not going to hold down a great player often. He missed some shots the first time we played them and we made him take some tough ones. He was feeling good. His jump shot was falling and he was getting some buckets in transition.''
It's not a stretch to say that James wants his third MVP in four seasons, and in what probably is no surprise either, Durant acknowledged before the game that he would like to win the award.
Durant thinks it's too early to have the conversation - and when it is time, he indicated he'd be like James, saying he'd rather not tout his own merits.
''I can't worry about that,'' Durant said when asked about his own MVP candidacy. ''If you worry about that type of stuff, that's when you take your focus off the game, start doing stuff that you don't want to do on the floor. I can't worry about that. It's not in my control. All I can control is how hard I work, how hard I play, and whatever else falls in line after that, we'll see.''
The Heat say they saw plenty on Wednesday.
''Two MVP candidates, you have to want that matchup,'' Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. ''LeBron accepted the challenge and that's what we expect him to do as our leader and our MVP candidate. You have to step up to the plate and that's what he did.''
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