When LeBron James and the Miami Heat hit the court on Thursday night, it almost seemed as if the hype surrounding LeBron had reached the height of its powers. Then, he lived up to every single bit of it on the floor.
James led the Heat to a 110-100 road win in Oklahoma City, and fell just short of extending his streak of 30+ points with 60+% shooting to an absurd seven consecutive games. His stat line of 39 points (on 14-24 shooting), 12 rebounds, and 7 assists tells the story of a fantastic performance, but the fact that this sort of production is almost “ho-hum” for LeBron at this point illustrates his consistent brilliance. There were many “winners and losers” from Thursday night’s game (we’ll get there), but, as per usual, his performance stood out above all else.
From the opening tip, Oklahoma City sputtered offensively, and, with the Heat running on all cylinders on offense, the early game hole was dug in a big way. Kevin Durant started the game by missing his first 7 shots before finally converting a 3-point field goal with 4:22 left in the 2nd quarter. It was Durant’s longest drought before an initial field goal of the season, and he seemingly couldn’t generate his stroke.
Fireworks also began at an early point in the game, as Durant was whistled for yet another technical foul (a growing trend), and on the ensuing play, he was undercut and took a scary-looking fall to the ground. He would hop up without missing any time (which was shocking if you saw the fall), but the Thunder still hadn’t awakened from their slumber offensively.
As the Thunder started the game with 7-25 shooting (28%) through the first 18 minutes of the game, Miami extended their lead to 47-29 with 4:30 to go in the half. Then, after trading buckets for a few possessions, Lebron James hit four consecutive jump shots (two deep threes and two 20-foot fade-aways) at the end of the second quarter. It was the “highlight” display of LBJ’s night, and it helped push the Miami lead to more than 20 points as the half neared completion. OKC battled a bit to cut the lead to 15, before surrendering an inexplicable bucket on a Shane Battier-to-Chris Bosh connection on the buzzer-beating dunk to end the half at 63-46.
The trend of the first half continued early in the second as Oklahoma City continued to settle for jump shot after jump shot with little ball movement. It was almost as if Durant and Westbrook had agreed privately to play 1-on-1 and not include their teammates in the majority of the offense. Nothing personified this more than when Westbrook looked Durant off in a secondary break, only to settle for a 1-on-1 isolation and a forced 15-footer (that went begging) during the 3rd quarter. Throughout the night, this was the key development (aside from James’ dominance), and it wasn’t until OKC eliminated this provision that they made a run late in the game.
On the Miami side, Chris Bosh was spectacular throughout the night, finishing with 20 points (on 10-14 shooting), 12 rebounds, and 3 blocks. He was the unsung hero (as usual) and his ability to score efficiently on offense was complimented by completely removing Serge Ibaka from the Thunder’s offense on the other end. This, along with LeBron, made up for a sub-par effort from Dwyane Wade, who scored just 13 points on 13 shots before fouling out in only 31 minutes of game time.
The Thunder were able to mount a late charge on the back of a delayed emergence from Kevin Durant. After the 0-7 start referenced above, Durant finished the game shooting 12 of his next 17 from the field, and scoring an impressive 40 points. This seems almost inconceivable after not managing to convert a field goal for more than 18 game minutes, but Durant’s ability to get to the line (he made 15-15) and a late-game explosion (22 points in the 4th quarter) resulted in an impressive stat line.
On another somewhat insane note, Durant played all 48 minutes in this game, while facing off with LeBron for much of the night. Very gritty. Oklahoma City cut the Miami lead down to just 10 with under 2 minutes to play, but then LeBron James (there’s that man again) flushed a back-breaking alley-oop dunk through the net off of an inbound play, and that was that.
In the end, Oklahoma City was doomed by their paltry execution in the first half, but on this night, Miami was the better team from the opening tip. It was a nationally televised reminder that, even in the best year of Durant’s career, there is still a divide between James and Durant. LeBron impacted the game on both ends from the downbeat, while Durant’s offensive prowess for the final 2.5 quarters (while impressive) couldn’t overshadow his slow start. TNT’s Steve Kerr made repeated references to Oklahoma City “needing to learn that they can’t play isolation ball”, and I couldn’t agree more. Miami played with much, much better ball movement throughout, and that was the offensive difference.
It is fair to say that LeBron (and Bosh, really) wouldn’t be this good in every game of a playoff series, and I’d absolutely love to see these two teams square off in the NBA Finals for the second straight year. The high-level players are there, the match-ups are riveting, and the two best players sharing the court (at the same position, no less) are always worth watching. LeBron and company were better on this night, but something tells me that Oklahoma City has an extra gear that they didn’t quite reach. Either way, this was fun.