Only a handful of games this season have featured LeBron James at his motivated best on the defensive end of the floor. Wednesday against the Thunder at AmericanAirlines Arena was one of those games.
James tried to downplay the one-on-one matchup of MVP contenders leading up to the game, but the Heat forward started on Kevin Durant and looked like a defensive back against the Thunder’s superstar. Despite all the pressure, Durant scored 16 points in the first half and finished with 33. He entered the game with at least 30 points in his previous 11 games and as a clear leader for the NBA’s MVP award.
James has won the MVP in four of the past five seasons while also winning two consecutive championships. In other words, all of James’ success has served as motivation for Durant.
The Thunder’s sharpshooting 6-10 small forward has been playing without guard Russell Westbrook, who is sidelined with a knee injury, and has also been motivated by going out of the playoffs earlier than expected last season.
James can relate to the extra incentive that comes from underperforming in the playoffs, but he said comparing his career to Durant’s current run lacks perspective.
“My situation is different. It’s hard for me to compare my situation to any other player, but at the same time, I understand with Westbrook going down, it’s a lot of pressure put on [Durant],” James said. “It’s a lot of obligations that he has to take on to help his team win. He’s playing basketball at a high level, but I can’t base my career and what I’ve been through to any other player in history, actually.”
Dwyane Wade said it was time for the Heat to start building toward the playoffs. Not coincidentally, the team then turned in a dominant defensive effort in the first quarter.
The Heat jumped out to an 18-2 lead to begin the game. The quick start against the Thunder helped build a 30-21 lead after the first period. Miami has focused on its defense during the recent homestand. The Heat held the Celtics to 39 percent shooting last week. The Spurs managed 45 percent shooting Sunday.
“We’re just understanding what we were doing wrong and getting in there and trying to fix it, trying to understand what we’re doing wrong and trying to get in there and trying to fix it,” Wade said. “Trying to understand that we have to continue to work our habits and be consistent if we’re going to be the team that we’ve become.
“It doesn’t just happen. We have had these type of moments throughout every year, and the good thing is we’re able to get back into our identity.”
Durant has expanded his game offensively and defensively since losing to the Heat in the 2012 Finals, but Wade said Durant’s biggest improvement has come as a leader.
“He has become more of a vocal leader,” Wade said. “I think when you’re as talented as he has been for so many years, yet when you’re young you can continue to get better; I think his leadership is probably the biggest thing.
“You can tell with Westbrook going down and see them guys constantly play that way. There is leadership coming from somewhere. Most time it’s coming from the best player.”