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LeBron James prevails in one-on-one battle with Kevin Durant, crosses critical Finals threshold

 

OKLAHOMA CITY – Here was his chance to deliver LeBron James into a living hell of a weekend, a this-is-your-life avalanche of failed fourth quarters and foiled championship chases. All the way back Kevin Durant had brought the Oklahoma City Thunder, pushing past James' touch of tentativeness with a flurry of shots. Finally, the clock ticking down, ball in his hands, Durant had a chance for overtime.

The pass had come sooner than the play had called for, catching Durant as he crept down the baseline with 12 seconds left. As his long arms lifted into the air, James made the calculated gamble of these playoffs. He locked arms with Durant on his way into the air, and Durant's shot sailed to the rim, bounced off the side, and bounced into his hands. The refs didn't dare blow the whistle on the three-time MVP, and it wouldn't be long until James delivered his 11th and 12th free throws without a miss, and a 100-96 Game 2 victory over the Thunder.

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LeBron James scored six of his 32 points in the fourth quarter of Game 2. (Getty Images)

When it was over, Durant understood the superstar code. Whatever the contact, whatever the no-call, these stakes, his stature, offer no leeway for excuses.

"I missed the shot, man," Durant said.

[Photos: Game 2 slideshow]

Again and again, Durant was given the chance to raise an eyebrow, send a message to the officials demanding the proper respect for the NBA scoring champion, and Durant didn't dare do it. The questions came, and the responses were unwavering.

This is turning into a monumental matchup, the planet's two most devastating talents trading shot for shot, moment for moment. James and Durant would go the distance in Game 2, go for 32 points each, and these NBA Finals are threatening to turn into a classic.

Something else happened here. No one would've been surprised if the Heat collapsed in the fourth quarter, but they didn't. Miami held onto the victory that it desperately needed in the 2-3-2 series format, and so much of it had to do with James crossing a threshold in the final minutes. James' hardest NBA Finals tests – tight road games – was playing out like the others in his troubled championship history. Up until the final four and half minutes, he was scoreless in the fourth quarter. His gait, his disposition looked decidedly old LeBron.

All night, James had beaten a path to the basket, finishing with several lefty bank shots of the highest degree of difficulty. All night, James dropped his head down, pushed past Thunder defenders with rippling muscles and a relentless resolve to finish at the rim, and get to the free-throw line. And yet, the Heat were rapidly losing a 13-point lead in the fourth, when James would go silent, and Durant would be closing hard with 26 of his 32 in the second half. Everyone started to get that sinking feeling that James could be on the wrong end of a crushing collapse.

And then, with the Thunder within three and Erik Spoelstra's play falling apart in the final seconds of the shot-clock, James hit a daring, difficult 15-foot bank shot with 1:26 left. Before the deed was done, James made a beautiful pass to Chris Bosh on a dunk. He also went 4-for-4 at the foul line in the final quarter. No ghosts for James, no goblins. And yet, James gave Durant a final chance for victory when he shot a lazy, long jumper with 14.9 seconds left and the Heat holding on, 98-96. Where was the drive to the rim? Where was the aggression?

[Related: OKC holds back Kevin Durant's star power, says Dwyane Wade]

Out of the timeout, Thunder coach Scott Brooks had diagrammed a pin-down play, where the ball handler dribbles to the opposite side, only to turn back quickly to have the shooter come free off the screen. Before it developed, Derek Fisher trusted his instincts that Durant had a step on James, fired a pass and Durant had the ball in a place that even he admitted, "That's a shot I shoot all the time."

Here was his chance to bring Oklahoma City all the way back, all the way on James, and from seven feet away, Durant missed. Seven minutes earlier, James and Spoelstra had come to the Heat huddle with the same thought: Get Miami's best defender on Oklahoma City's best scorer.

"I want to guard the best on the biggest point of the game," James said. "He can make every shot on the floor." And James, realizing that Durant had gotten past him, would say, "I just wanted to keep a body on him, make him take a tough shot," and it was made all the tougher with James' big hands clawing Durant. That's how it goes in the final moments, where officials are sluggish to blow a whistle when it's the MVP checking the scoring champion.

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LeBron James had the tough assignment of slowing down Kevin Durant in the late stages of Game 2. (Getty Images) …

Durant's job was to force overtime, force James into pressure plays and make him match everything. He had been downright brilliant, balancing five fouls and determination to still rush the rim. For the second time here, the Heat had a huge lead to start the game, and this time, it took until late in the fourth before Oklahoma City got within a whisper. Suddenly James has thrust pressure on Durant.

For the first time in 10 games, the Thunder lost a playoff in Oklahoma City. This isn't the end of the world for the Thunder, but Durant needs some of these young stars surrounding him to grow quickly. Russell Westbrook has been wildly up and down in the series, and James Harden was privately seething over the six shots he was afforded in Game 1, a source said. This was why general manager Sam Presti and vice president of basketball operations Troy Weaver wanted the presence of past champions Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher in the locker room. Perkins and Fisher reminded Harden that this was no time for personal priorities, that these were the NBA Finals, and it wasn't long until Harden was over it, a source said.

These are the issues that crop up for young teams on the rise, and they're forever part of the process in making the leap from good to great to champion. James did damage inside Durant's building, and now the series turns to Miami, where the Heat's mandate is simple: Get two of three games, and get back to Oklahoma City leading 3-2, needing one victory for the championship.

These are the Finals everyone wanted, the moments of truth for Durant and James that shape the sport's history, that make this the most compelling of theater. In the end, it becomes so simple: Makes and misses. The ball had come to Durant with the clock ticking down, and here was a shot that he had made a million times in his life. James grabbed onto him for dear life, and still those endless arms of Durant unfolded, that wrist flicked and the ball had a chance.

Makes and misses. No foul, no excuses. Durant didn't chase down the officials, didn't throw a tantrum, didn't pout in his news conference. Did James foul him? Who knows. He'll go look at the tape, he said. Durant understands the burden, understands the stakes. They're chasing a championship now, chasing immortality, and James beat Durant and the Thunder on Thursday night.

[Related: Wrong goaltending call proves key in Game 2]

"I missed the shot, man," Durant said, and sometimes, that's all the explanation anyone wants out of a superstar.

All those chances to turn the fourth quarter – force a possible overtime – were gone. Slowly, surely, James is discovering fresh Finals successes, crossing into new dimensions. Ball in his hands, clock ticking down and Durant will forever live with the consequences of makes and misses. Kevin Durant had a chance to take an opposing superstar out on Thursday, and he'll long rue the day he let the Miami Heat into the NBA Finals, and most of all, let LeBron James live to beat him another day.

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