We tuned into ESPN on Wednesday night to see the two best basketball players in the world go head to head and shot for shot, and near the end of the third quarter of the Oklahoma City Thunder's visit to South Florida to take on the Miami Heat, we all got our wish. And it was glorious.
Take it away, LeBron James and Kevin Durant:
LeBron making a well-timed off-ball cut and bulldozing his way through Serge Ibaka, sending the 6-foot-10, 245-pound Thunder shot-blocker careening backward, then bouncing off him and finishing at the rim. Durant coming back, calmly pulling up from 28 feet away and barely disturbing the net as he rings up three more points.
LeBron responding by driving left, putting a shoulder into Perry Jones III before jumping back to get separation — but only barely, thanks to the second-year forward's 7-foot-1-3/4-inch wingspan — and draining a baseline fadeaway J over the former Baylor standout. Durant responding with a near mirror-image move on the right side of the court, only this time the defender was James and he went glass for the bucket.
LeBron answering by squaring up on KD, giving him a quick right-to-left dribble through the legs, then rising quick to knock down a 21-footer. Durant coming back with a quick right-to-left dribble through the legs, then hesitating just long enough with the ball in his left hand to make James respect the prospect of another cross and drive before raising up and wetting another right-wing 3-point bomb.
"Rucker Park, that's what was going through my head," Durant said after the game. "It was fun ... I'm sure the fans got what they wanted to see with that one."
"It's fun competition," James added. "It's been a while since I was able to do something like that and go at each other."
As Durant told Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman, they went at each other verbally, too:
“We said some slick stuff,” Durant said. “But that stays on the court. He is a tremendous competitor, and I love playing against him. It was a fun game, and I’m sure when we play again it’s going to be the same.”
Just like that, though, the magic moment passed. LeBron violated the rules of engagement by taking a high screen from Chris Andersen on the next possession and was punished when his pull-up 3-ball went wanting. Durant's chance to claim a clear victory in the mano a mano encounter fizzled thanks to some physical defense from LeBron that led to a mishandled dribble and a desperation end-of-the-shot-clock chuck that airballed, leading to a 24-second violation.
The humans returned to the fold after that, with OKC's Jones fouling Ray Allen on a shot with 2.1 seconds left (Allen split his pair at the line) before redeeming himself with a wonderful one-touch redirection of a Nick Collison long-bomb inbounds pass that found Derek Fisher wide-open on the left wing for a banked-in buzzer-beating 3-pointer that closed the third quarter.
Fisher's triple gave the Thunder a 16-point lead headed into the final frame, Durant opened the fourth quarter with five straight to push the lead to 21, and it was all over but the shoutin' at that point, as Oklahoma City — who trailed 22-4 halfway through the first quarter — roared to an impressive 112-95 win, their ninth in a row, to improve their West-leading record to 37-10, including a 14-5 mark without injured star point guard Russell Westbrook. The loss drops Miami to 5-5 over its past 10 games, 3 1/2 games behind the Indiana Pacers for the top spot in the East, and certainly won't do anything to quiet the "What's wrong with the Heat?" rumblings that began in earnest with three straight losses three weeks back, despite James' game-high 34 points on 12 for 20 shooting.
That's thanks in large part to Durant, who finished with a team-high 33 points — his 12th straight 30-plus-point performance, bringing him within two games of matching Tracy McGrady's 14-game streak during the 2002-03 season, and within four games of tying Kobe Bryant and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the second-longest 30-plus stretch in NBA history. He's still got a ways to go before reaching Wilt Chamberlain's mark of 20 in a row back in 1964, but ... I mean, at this point, would you bet against KD scoring 30 eight more times?
He also added seven rebounds and five assists — the 16th time he's gone for 30-7-5 this season, far and away the most in the league; Kevin Love, the man with the second-most such performances, has seven — to continue his ridiculous, torrid run of form. The January averages have held insanely firm: 36.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, six assists and 1.7 steals in 38.8 minutes per game, shooting 53.9 percent from the floor, 41.8 percent from 3-point range and 88.8 percent from the foul line (on more than 11 attempts a night) over the course of 15 games, with the Thunder going 11-4 in those contests, building an increasingly convincing MVP case that was only bolstered by a Wednesday night performance in which he came at the King and didn't miss.
- - - - - - -