The Oklahoma City Thunder would seem to be the ones with something to prove, and it says quite a bit about the team’s fabulous season and magnificent lead star Kevin Durant that it appears as if the Miami Heat and four-time league MVP LeBron James are the ones hoping to make things right as the squads prepare for battle on Wednesday evening.
The Thunder lost to the Heat during James’ first championship run in 2012, losing home-court advantage and falling to the eventual champs despite taking a 1-0 series lead. The group was even shellacked by 15 points in the deciding game of that series, the finale of 86 total games in a cramped lockout-influenced season.
Despite the loss of guard James Harden just before the regular season began, the Thunder rebounded quite nicely in 2012-13, piling up a quiet 60 wins while the Heat raced out to 66 victories and a 27-game winning streak in front of clicking cameras. Any chance of the Thunder upending Miami’s title defense went out the window when Houston guard Patrick Beverley made an aggressive play for the ball on a vulnerable Russell Westbrook, tearing the All-Star’s meniscus along the way. The Thunder would win that first-round series, but die out in the second round with Durant working just about by his lonesome.
Westbrook has had two subsequent follow-up surgeries since then, scarily, only playing in 25 of his team’s 46 games thus far. Durant hasn’t struggled nearly as much this time around, though, to say the absolute least. It’s true that the NBA on average isn’t anywhere near the defensive level of the 2012-13 Memphis Grizzlies, who dispatched the Westbrook-less Thunder last season, but what Durant has done in his absence is remarkable — his recent mixture of scoring, production and efficiency is just about unprecedented in any era.
This has helped the Thunder secure the West’s best record in spite of Westbrook barely playing in more than half the team’s games, and it has rightfully vaulted Durant to the top of the Most Valuable Player list. Such a storyline-led move toward a previous Numbah Two is not unprecedented in league annals — Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan have all lost out on deserved MVP awards because the participants in the voting tire of checking the box next to the obvious candidate — but things are different in 2013-14.
This isn’t voter fatigue. Durant is that good. Not only has he bested LeBron James’ 2013-14 season, some could argue that he could be on his way to even besting the top years of James’ previous award-winning campaigns. Or matching them, at least.
LeBron James is not used to being matched. This rankles him enough to even create fake words to document on record his intentions heading into Wednesday night, when he was asked by reporters if defending Durant was a secondary concern in comparison to stopping the Thunder as a whole:
“It's not secondary, it's first-dary."
Outside of the borderline-infuriating summer of 2010, LeBron has always been one to let his play do the talking, as he doesn’t mind going on record to point out how great some of his contemporaries are — moves that are in sharp contrast to give no quarter, alpha male former MVP-types like Michael Jordan, O’Neal, and Kobe Bryant. On Tuesday, James went on to point out to the press that no player — not even an athlete with Defensive Player of the Year-potential like James — can hope to shut down Kevin Durant. And he’s right, because Durant’s combination of size, smarts, skill and quickness is just about unprecedented. He’s Larry Bird, but he can beat your wide receiver in a footrace.
This doesn’t mean James is completely averse to being put off by Durant’s astonishing year. Earlier in the season he admitted to keeping up with Durant’s box score numbers on his phone following games, in a move not unlike the newspaper scrolling that Bird and Magic Johnson did back during their rivalry. On Tuesday, he copped to the fact that the Heat’s long-term approach to the season is getting to him. From Brian Windhorst at ESPN:
Now James' playing time is at a career low, less than 37 minutes a night. Spoelstra has almost totally eliminated James' time at power forward. And yet now James is reversing his position on the matter.
"I'm not playing as many minutes as I would like but Spo is in control of that," James said Tuesday. "I don't like playing less, I don't feel like I need to play less. Don't ever put it out there that LeBron wants to play less."
There's no rift between James and the coaching staff. James knows Spoelstra is trying to be prudent for the long haul. If you're looking for an explanation for this attitude, the root lies not with James' team at all, but it wears No. 35 and lives in Oklahoma.
The Heat are making the right move, here, and James knows this. This is a team that played 113 exhibition, regular and postseason games in 2012-13, coming off the heels of a wearying lockout year, and they figure to make it to June again this season while tangling with the Indiana Pacers in the third round. Indiana has the league’s best record and a stated goal of earning home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference finals, and it’s far from a guarantee that this Heat team will even make it back to the Finals in time for a rematch with the Thunder. Assuming the Thunder, working in weeds of the West, will even get there themselves.
This is why Wednesday night is so special. And in an era where superstars are increasingly self- and statistically-aware, without bordering on selfishly piling up stats, you have two teams and two superstars who are quite cognizant of what’s at stake.
And for once, it’s the two-time defending champs, featuring the four-time NBA MVP, who have something to prove. Funny how just half a season can change narratives so completely.
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