MIAMI — It’s comical now, downright laugh-out-loud funny, to think that 18 months ago LeBron James was the game’s biggest choke artist. A fourth-quarter fraud. A traitorous villain. A stone temple of a body with a head made of mush.
As Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony added to their early MVP resumes and entertained fans on the left coast with a mid-day Christmas classic, James followed on the main stage 2,300 miles away with yet another splendid performance that not only saw him narrowly miss a triple-double (29 points, nine assists and eight rebounds), but for 39 minutes hound three-time scoring champ and MVP candidate in his own right, Kevin Durant.
It’s not typical to highlight a defensive performance when the opposition scores 33 points, 25 in the second half and 14 in the fourth quarter, and shoots better than 50 percent (11-for-21). Yet, it’s impossible to say that James did anything short of a terrific job contesting everything, which speaks to the level Durant is at and the difficulty and variety of shots he made, from floaters to a pump-fake bank from the right block to an array of fallaways and turnarounds.
But it was a slow burn for Durant, and it hurt Oklahoma City. Durant got off one shot attempt in the first quarter and was in foul trouble quickly, a trend that goes back to the championship series. Durant picked up two in the first quarter — perhaps a cheap second one — and a third foul late in the first half. Two of three were charged on the offensive end.
With the exception of a few possessions manned by Shane Battier, a career defensive specialist, James checked Durant from the opening tip to the final 10 seconds when the three-time defending MVP bodied Durant out beyond the arc and forced a long-range leaner that didn’t go.
“I felt like I played great defense,” James said regarding Durant’s final shot. “If he makes that shot then we’ll live with it.”
Durant’s dynamic teammate Russell Westbrook will catch some grief for a couple of wild drives late that resulted in lost possessions, and for his errant 3-pointer going for the tie that he launched from in front of the Thunder bench with still more than five seconds on the clock. He thought he was fouled by a closing Dwyane Wade, but had the whistle blown it could have gone against Westbrook for sticking out his leg.
The Heat held on 103-97, their fifth consecutive victory over the Thunder going back to the Finals.
After James showered and was the final member of the Heat to make a post-game appearance in the locker room, his freshness belied the massive energy he had just exerted in a game that stretched for nearly three hours and was played as intensely at both ends as they come in the regular season.
“I’m tired as hell right now. Every bit of it,” James said. “I guard him the whole game and I still have to be able to make plays for our team offensively, but that’s what my calling is. I love playing defense just as well as I play on offense. Hey, whatever it takes to help us win.”
The Heat have now won five in a row, a streak that coincides with a determination to again put defense first. At 19-6, they tied Oklahoma City (21-6) and the Clippers (22-6) in the loss column with the fewest defeats in the league. While Melo and the New York Knicks are a great story in these first two months, the Heat are the class of the East. Spare me how the Knicks have already taken down the Heat — twice.
And out West, yes, the Lakers have won five straight and hope springs eternal again with the exciting return of Steve Nash. But can the Lakers or anybody else — perhaps that other L.A. team — possess the combination of speed, size and athleticism as the Thunder?
These two teams, each with a transcendent, physically freakish star that can’t be stopped, the supporting superstars in Westbrook and Wade, who reach a consistent speed of play above everyone else, appear headed for a consecutive Finals showdown. And who knows after that, as whispers of a 1980s-style Lakers-Celtics rivalry can’t be ignored.
“Our teams mirror each other, but you really can’t say right now,” Durant said. “There’s so many good teams, you never know what could happen. Of course, that’s a sexier matchup as far as LeBron and me, and Russell and D-Wade, Serge [Ibaka] and Chris Bosh, of course that’s the matchup everybody wants to see. You never know.”
It should scare the rest of the league. And the Thunder should be concerned that they continue to play the Heat close, but can’t catch them. Tuesday’s game could have turned on multiple plays. A defensive mixup led to James’ laser pass inside to a wide-open Bosh with 25.5 seconds to go for a 98-95 Heat lead as Durant, Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins turned in disgust.
Before that, Westbrook missed two drives and Kevin Martin came up short on another with 1:30 to go and the Thunder down three. Maybe next time Heat point guard Mario Chalmers, who averages 7.1 points a game and hadn’t scored more than 12 this season, won’t go off for 20 points and hit four 3-pointers.
It was Durant who had the 6-2 Chalmers much of the time, while Thabo Sefolosha and Westbrook were tasked with James and Wade. But the 6-11 Durant often strayed, cheating into the paint and leaving Chalmers alone, and he made the Thunder pay. As he did with 25 points in Game 4 of the Finals.
Such a scenario would seem to be advantageous for OKC, allowing Durant to concentrate on the offensive end while James carries the burden of going all out at both ends on every possession.
“That’s why LeBron is the best player on the earth,” Battier said. “He’s a two-way player, the best on both sides of the ball. That’s what makes him legendary.”