LeBron James and Kevin Durant are so good in such different ways.
James is a battering ram; Durant, a scalpel.
James is a jalapeno pepper; Durant, butter.
James is a karate chop; Durant, a flying ninja.
South Florida fans got a chance to see the two best players in basketball on Sunday at AmericanAirlines Arena in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. It was another spine-tingling finish, but in the closing minutes the Heat played with command and panache, as if they’ve been here before, while the stumbling Thunder did not.
The Heat took a 2-1 lead with the 91-85 victory. Miami has two more games at home to try to wrap up the series quickly and dispense with a return trip to the Thunder Dome in Oklahoma City.
James continued to play with a zoned-in demeanor. He scored on a twisting, backwards layup (degree of difficulty: 10.0) around Kendrick Perkins that gave Miami a seven-point lead with 2:19 left as Durant’s shoulders drooped helplessly on the other side of the basket.
James grabbed the game by the throat in the fourth quarter, scoring eight points with four rebounds, while Durant faltered, scoring four points on two-for-six shooting with one rebound. Russell Westbrook took the Thunder’s final attempts as time wound down.
James vs. Durant lived up to its dream matchup billing for most of the game. But Durant missed badly on two 10-foot jump shots in the last 2:30 with James covering him. Earlier in the quarter, when it was a one-point game, Durant missed two free throws, a driving layup that was blocked by Chris Bosh and a three-point shot.
The Heat trusted James at crunch time. The young Thunder players weren’t sure whom to trust.
Watching James and Durant play is like curling up with a book you can’t put down or sitting down to a meal you can’t stop eating.
Watching them play against each other doubles the pleasure.
One of the defining plays of the game was James chugging toward the lane, barreling through the tardy Durant, dunking, and then sinking the free throw for a seven-point lead with 3:47 left and saddling Durant with his fifth foul.
Another big play came in the second quarter when Durant backed into James, pivoted around, hesitated, then elevated over James for a three-point swish.
Those two sequences captured the contrast.
James is 15 pounds heavier, Durant an inch taller.
James is a tougher defender and more aggressive rebounder. Durant is a better shooter and natural scorer.
James has more tools, and likes to use a blowtorch and sander.
Durant glides, eludes, swoops. He’s got a quick release, smooth as satin.
Through the first two games of the Finals, James averaged 31 points on 46 percent shooting with a total of 17 rebounds. Durant averaged 34 points on 57 percent shooting with a total of 11 rebounds. Their numbers were similar again on Sunday, with James scoring 29 on 11-for-23 shooting with three assists and four turnovers. Durant scored 25 on 11-for-19 shooting with zero assists and five turnovers.
The main difference was in the rebound column, where James snatched 14 compared to Durant’s six. James generated second-chance points for the Heat, got to the free-throw line twice as often as Durant, who had only four trips, and helped the Heat win what has been the determining points-in-the-paint battle, 46-42. Durant also sat for a long stretch after picking up his fourth foul – which was the predicament he faced in Game 2. While he was out, the Thunder lost its lead.
“I’m trying to be aggressive on both ends,” Durant. “I’ve just got to play smarter next game. I had a nice rhythm going on the offensive end and for it to stop like that by me going out because of fouls is tough.”
Durant was hit with his fourth foul with 5:40 left in the third when he tried to impede Dwyane Wade, who was sliding toward the basket. OKC fans could argue it was the same kind of bump James gave Durant on Durant’s possible game-tying layup in Game 2. No foul was called on James.
“I try not to concern myself with officiating,” Durant said. “They’re human. You’ve got to play through it.”
Oklahoma City’s four key players are age 23 under. They showed their age in the fourth quarter, squandering what had been a 10-point lead with mistakes.
“We missed some free throws, turned the ball over too many times,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “They make you work for every shot. It’s two great defensive teams. I really believe that a small play here or there could have helped us – one more stop, a couple more free throws could have changed the outcome.”
In the fourth quarter, James asserted his physical advantage over Durant. He asserted control over the outcome.
James is a lion; Durant, a cat.
“I tried to keep my body on him in the fourth quarter and Chris Bosh came over and made a couple blocks,” said James, who also got a critical foul levied against James Harden.
Don’t get carried away, though, Heat fans. The Heat was ahead 2-1 in last year’s Finals, and we know what happened after that in the collapse against Dallas.
“We understand the situations better this year,” Wade said. “Experience is not overrated. Last year we had leads and let them go. Last year LeBron was thinking too much. This year he’s attacking. When he puts his head down to go to the rim, you have no other choice but to foul him or he’s going to finish.”
James, 27, in his ninth year as a pro, is seeking his first NBA title, under extreme pressure. Durant, in his fourth year, is no less determined to win his first and the first major pro championship for Oklahoma City at the precocious age of 23.
So strap in for another thriller on Tuesday, starring the two most exquisite and entertaining players in the game.