Wednesday evening’s downtown Miami rain lacked lightning. No matter. A big-game feel crackled about the arena area.
Parking lots charged $5 more than usual. The bomb dogs sniffed laptop bags.
And LeBron James dropped into defensive attack mode in front of Kevin Durant on the first Oklahoma City Thunder possession — hips low, arms wide, ready to stop or, heck, tackle. Only the late arrivers couldn’t feel the Serious Man vibe from James as he started down with the friend who covets James’ place atop the basketball world.
For one night, Durant took it — being the best player on the court that included LeBron James and leading the better team on the court that included the two-time defending champions.
Again, for one night. But it does show the gap between James and Durant once seeming generational in more ways than one, now might be shorter than the length of either man’s shooting arm.
James outscored Durant 34-33. But Durant had more assists (5-3), more rebounds (7-3) and more steals (2-0), eliminating the ways James gets the rest of the Heat involved. James got the Durant defensive assignment all game while Durant took most of the shifts on James, but got spelled by Thabo Sefolosha occasionally.
Durant seemed slow to take up his side of the argument, an impression not helped by the excessive length of his arms, legs, and shooting range. He can appear effortless, too smooth. Smooth escorts cool. This game seemed a bad neighborhood for cool, especially when the Heat led 22-4.
Then, the Heat let happen exactly what it said it couldn’t — commit turnovers and allow Durant easy baskets that got him into a rhythm. He stole a Chris Bosh entry pass for James and galloped the length of the court to a Bosh goaltending call.
In swift succession, James lost the ball on a drive, Bosh got a bunny shot blocked by Serge Ibaka and Mario Chalmers blew a tire and spun out of bounds. Shortly after a rumbling, James missed a layup, and Durant again went coast-to-coast with his Man O’ War strides for a layup.
Now, it was on. Near the end of the half, Durant spun, lost James like a phone charger and fed Ibaka for a dunk. James responded by feeding Dwyane Wade for a double-pump layup.
“The thing I love about it, it’s about the team for both of them,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. “They understand that there’s four other guys who help them win games. That would’ve been great opportunity if we could’ve cleared the court and let them play one-on-one, that would’ve been fun to watch. Both guys realize it’s not a one-on-one matchup, it’s a team matchup.”
The first time in the game that James got the ball on a clear-out with Durant, an anticipatory murmur in the Triple A built to a mini-howl you expect from a playground peanut gallery. What the crowd begged for then would flower late in the third quarter, when Durant and James engaged in a duel that Durant said made him think, “Rucker Park.”
A 6-0 Heat run, ended by a James layup, shrank the Thunder lead to 78-68. Ah, heads nodded throughout the Triple A and the nation, here’s when the Heat comes down on the Thunder like snow on Atlanta, then swiftly turns the steady fall of misses and steals into a devastating run.
Instead, Durant pulled up with a three-pointer with James in his breathing space. James came back with a baseline jumper. Durant missed two shots on one possession, but two possessions later, Durant went off the glass over James. James buried a 21-footer with Durant in his face.
The Heat trailed 85-74 but the arena hopped for the first time since the second quarter. And Durant kept the party going by dropping in a three with James on him, then saw James miss a three at the other end.
Not to be outdone defensively, James got chesty with Durant, who lost the ball on a crossover and threw up an air-ball at the shot-clock horn. Back in the second quarter, Durant grabbed a loose ball and launched over LeBron with the clock winding down. The microphone-aided “THWIP” of the net cut through the shot clock horn.
Anyway, Durant holding up his end of the duel quelled the Heat threat.
“They just gave me the ball and told me to go make a play,” Durant said. “He got hot for a quick second and I had to come in and make an answer. I’m sure the fans got that they wanted to see with that one.
“We said some sick stuff, but that stays on the court. He’s a tremendous competitor and I love playing against him.”
Said James: “He was matching shots by keeping them up big and I was just trying to get us back in the game. It is a fun competition. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to do something like that and go at each other.”