Rising Thunder a threat to LeBron, Heat legacy

Rising Thunder a threat to LeBron, Heat legacy

Published Apr. 4, 2012 12:09 a.m. ET

MIAMI — Look closely, LeBron James. The team that arrives on your home turf Wednesday night isn't just a threat to some regular-season game in April.

The Oklahoma City Thunder and star Kevin Durant are a threat to everything that matters to your legacy: your chance at winning a championship this season, Pat Riley's all-in bet that landing the Big Three was the greatest free-agent coup in NBA history, and your tattooed belief that you are this era's basketball Chosen One.

The Thunder aren't just an interesting test of where this Heat team is as it comes out of a 3-3 stretch that includes big losses at Oklahoma City and Boston and Tuesday's 99-93 win against Philadelphia, which extended Miami's home win streak to 16.

The Thunder are a rising force that has the potential to redefine how this Heat team, and LeBron James, will be remembered years from now.

It wasn't supposed to be this way, not now, not so soon. The Thunder's time was supposed to be a few years down the road, when youngsters like Durant and Russell Westbrook finally learned to carry themselves as stars, and to coexist with the ease of co-champions. When Serge Ibaka and James Harden would flower into the final pieces of a championship-caliber team, and acquisitions like Kendrick Perkins would add oomph to the well-aged excellence that had grown up together.

It wasn't supposed to be this way for the Heat, either. By now — season two of their grand experiment — they were supposed to be well on their way to if not six or seven championships, at least one or two.

Instead, it's the Heat still trying to find their rhythm and the Thunder seeming like an unfolding dynasty that's matured much, much sooner than expected. Durant and Westbrook have shaken off the signs of chemistry issues between them and blossomed into the duo Dwyane Wade and LeBron may never be.

And if they do not win a championship this year, the Heat very well could be dismantled and put back together minus at least one of the Big Three.

Whatever side you're on in the debate over whether Wade and LeBron are the perfect pairing, the fact is in the absence of one, the other often seems more fluid and self-assured on the floor. It's not just LeBron's 41 points Tuesday night or that Wade did not take a single fourth-quarter shot in last week's loss to the Thunder. It's the fact that Miami is 9-1 without Wade this season.

Westbrook and Durant have learned to play together with a familiarity that is stunning to watch, and the reason, it seems, is because they came up together. They learned together, grew as a team. And whatever differences they had, they found a way to bond in the experience of learning to play in the pros together, an experience that the Big Three never had.

The Thunder are fearless where the Heat are often tight, pouty and full of angst when things go wrong. For all his youthful arrogance and chemistry concerns, Westbrook — and his fat new contract — has a lion's share of swagger and grit. So does Durant, in a quieter way — a calm amid chaos that Miami would do well to discover for itself.

LeBron doesn't have either, not that give-me-the-ball-I'm-the-man way you see come so naturally from Westbrook, not that cool disposition unique to talent that knows nothing, really, can touch it. And whereas Durant often seems to embrace Westbrook's tendency to shoot too much, Wade seems to look with bafflement at LeBron's tendency to shoot too little in big moments.

Watching all of this unfold — the Heat still a legitimate NBA threat, but the Thunder so advanced in that area — NBA GMs, executives and owners must be brimming with hope and half-contained glee. Outside of South Beach and David Stern's office, most everyone in the halls of NBA power probably would love to see Oklahoma City blow up the Microwave Heat.

The Thunder were built the old-fashioned way: through the draft, slowly baked, with the time and care it takes to make something both difficult and lasting — something, if time and talent and luck and patience pay off, that can represent a home-cooked masterpiece.

Thunder GM Sam Presti had a vision and allowed time, and the art of slow cooking, to be his guide. Pat Riley, for all he's done right in his illustrious career, tried to turn a do-it-on-the-quick recipe — albeit a wondrously powerful one on paper — into a championship fast track.

And guess what? The Thunder have developed more quickly than most imagined, and the Microwave Heat more slowly, and that means there's a chance the Thunder could take away the Heat's era by claiming their own early.

Last week in Oklahoma City, LeBron and his teammates got a glimpse of a terrifying future: Durant not just a scorer but a LeBron-like player, dishing assists, pulling rebounds, playing incredible defense — minus LeBron's late-game tendency toward fear.

Throw in the fact that it was LeBron whom Durant so formidably defended, and that game was a vision of horror for Heat fans.

"It's a great opportunity for us to continue to get better and to see how much we want to get better against a really tough team," LeBron said Tuesday about facing Durant and the Thunder on Wednesday night. "They pretty much beat up on us not too long ago."

Yes, they did. But that's not the takeaway, the fact the Thunder took one game in Oklahoma City.

The takeaway is this: Durant is as viable an MVP candidate as LeBron. The Thunder are as viable a championship contender as the Heat. And Oklahoma City, unlike Miami, is young, fearless and blossoming sooner than any of us thought possible.

Win now, LeBron. Be the greatest of all time now. Stop the Thunder from crowning themselves so soon by crowning yourself and your team, LeBron.

Take the floor Wednesday night and seek not just to win a game but to shatter the very confidence and fabric of this young threat rising to meet you.

Because if you don't, everything you and your team hold dear — legacy, championships, that window of NBA domination that is now yours — could vanish as quickly as last year's title did against Dallas.

You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.