James bests Durant in Heat's win over Thunder
MIAMI — This was perhaps the most gifted basketball
player in the world playing at his best on defense.
This was LeBron James, the oft-maligned and always-criticized Miami Heat
forward, defending Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City All-Star who is maybe the
NBA's most talented scorer. ... And James took it personally.
"Anytime you get an opportunity to go against one of the best," James
said, "you definitely take the challenge."
In this battle between the NBA's top two MVP candidates, James won. He crowded
Durant, got all up into his business, and shut him down in the Heat's 98-93
victory over the Thunder in Wednesday's nationally televised showdown.
With 1:24 left and the Heat leading 94-93, Durant threw up an awkward fadeaway
jumper that glanced off the top of the backboard as time expired on the shot
With 19.5 seconds left and Oklahoma City trailing 96-93, Durant ran off screen
from baseline to top of key, with James trailing, and put up a 26-foot 3-point
attempt that missed badly.
"You've got to want that matchup," Heat forward Udonis Haslem said.
"(James) accepted the challenge and that's what we expect him to do as our
leader and our MVP candidate."
OK, James didn't really shut Durant down. The Thunder star ended with 30 points
on 11-of-21 shooting. But Durant had nine turnovers. In the second half, Durant
had 15 points, but on 5-for-11 shooting with five turnovers. In the fourth
quarter he had nine points on 4-of-6 shooting.
But as crazy as it sounds, James, a three-time first-team All-Defensive
selection, did a darn good job on Durant defensively. James’ defense caused
Durant’s awkward jumper with 1:24 left and the failed 3 with 19.5 seconds left.
James was successful all night, and those were just two late-game examples.
"It's about as tough a cover as you can get and LeBron really worked the
game," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said.
When these teams met on March 25 in that 103-87 smackdown victory by Oklahoma
City, Durant had 28 points, nine rebounds and eight assists with just two
turnovers in the home win. He was all over the place. It was an embarrassment
to the Heat, and especially to James.
"I'm a competitor," James said. "I didn't play like I know I'm
capable of playing in that game."
So James, who scored a game-high 34 points on Wednesday, grabbed seven
rebounds, handed out 10 assists and had four steals, vowed to improve on that
shabby performance. He dug in, stayed with Durant as he ran off screens, kept a
hand in Durant’s face on jumpers and generally made himself another appendage,
linking himself to Durant's upper body.
For all the abuse James takes for being a choker on offense, you never hear
that charge against James defensively. Ever. He performs on defense. He defends
all five positions and usually takes the opponent's best scorer. Remember him
locking down Chicago's Derrick Rose in last year's Eastern Conference finals?
Wednesday's performance against Durant was reminiscent of that impressive
"LeBron took the challenge, got into (Durant’s) airspace," Heat forward
Chris Bosh said, "and that's really not easy to do."
Durant's game is no surprise to James. The two worked out together for a week
during the summer at the University of Akron. They called it hell week. It was
two-day-workouts and they were grueling. But even amid mind-numbing fatigue,
the two still found a way to compete. It was the same thing Wednesday,
especially late when the game was painfully close, with neither team gaining
more than a two-possession lead.
"It reminded me of the summer when we were both working out together,
pushing each other staying on top of each other," James said. "Even
though we were working out together we were looking at each other, trying to be
the best in those workouts."
On Wednesday, only one could be the best, and it was James, and that was
because of his work on the defensive end.