Kevin Durant said he wasn’t really into the message sending business. Just another regular season game against another regular season team.
But as he often does, KD couldn’t help but send a few. One, this MVP thing isn’t over. And two, his team is pretty stinking good.
I don’t know if it really was a Finals preview, but if so, after one take, the Thunder looked like they’ll be pretty prepared for it. Durant completely outplayed LeBron James, the Thunder’s supporting cast whipped the Heat and despite Russell Westbrook suffering through a miserable 4-of-16 shooting night, Oklahoma City handled the Heat 103-87. Durant’s complete 28-point, nine-rebound, eight-assist performance is the hook, but really it was the locust swarm of Thunder defense that did the Heat in. OKC was in every Miami passing lane forcing 21 turnovers and didn’t let LeBron, Wade or anyone else get into any kind of comfortable position.
The Thunder followed in step behind their leader as KD wonderfully owned this game. He was selective, unselfish and totally locked in. Not that Durant ever isn’t, but you could tell he was ready for his primetime matchup against LeBron. I don’t think you could say the same thing the other way. Just in the first half, Durant had 18 on 8-of-10 and dished out six assists. There was a tone set and Durant was leading the way.
“I was just trying to make the right play whether it was for an assist or a hockey assist,” Durant said. “There were times I should’ve made a better pass, there were times I should’ve shot it. I was just trying to get my teammates involved as much as possible and be aggressive.”
Those last two words though. Be aggressive. Durant was, while the opponent across from him appeared to be drifting a bit. While Durant put on a show and had everyone taking a second look at the MVP that everyone was trying to hand out at the end of February, LeBron was essentially a non-factor. Durant’s defense on him was terrific, but it was more than just that. Because a player like LeBron is able to get what he wants even against the best. But instead of taking on that look that Durant had from the tip, LeBron settled for jumpers, looked lost in the post and forced passes.
That’s the one thing you’ll never hear anyone say about Durant. He didn’t look ready to play. I can’t think of a single time where I could actually question whether or not Durant was into a game. Has he struggled shooting or lost focus in a moment? Of course. But there’s never been a time where it looked like Durant didn’t want the ball or wasn’t putting every effort into winning a game. Watching LeBron tonight, it was hard not to wonder about him.
Durant didn’t do it alone. Serge Ibaka turned in one of his finest games — 19 points and 10 rebounds. Perk had a season-high 16 and sent his own message with a kick to Wade’s face. Harden scored 14 of his 19 in the second quarter. Thabo Sefolosha hounded Wade defensively. And even Westbrook, who struggled, hit a big 3 and had six assists.
In terms of total effort, the Thunder probably turned in their best performance. Which is what you expect to see from a team contending for a title. You elevate your games for the best opponents. The Thunder were ready for the Heat. The Heat didn’t look ready for anything.
Is this the type of game that’s going to sway MVP votes, or tilt the contender bandwagon Oklahoma City’s way? Probably, but only for like 24 hours or so. Just wait until LeBron explodes for 34-10-11 against someone this week and Miami looks invincible again to swing things back. But consider this: The past two matchups featuring the Thunder and Heat — which included Kendrick Perkins — OKC is 2-0 with wins of 11 and 16. Durant outplayed LeBron both times and the Thunder came away looking more physical and tougher. The sample size there is small and with another game coming between these two soon, perception could change. But right now, the Thunder look better than the Heat. At least when they play each other.
Like always though, while I think it’s hard to ignore some kind of statement being made here, it’s a game in March. They don’t hand out trophies in March. LeBron might have the MVP in hand already from sportswriters drooling over his PER, but if this was supposed to be a Finals preview, KD looked like a Finals MVP.
- It got slightly scary there for a second as the Thunder stretched out to their largest lead of 16, only to have it cut in half by an 8-0 Miami run with 7:12 left. It happened because OKC turned the ball over on four of five possessions. Harden forced some passes and the Heat converted with back-to-back Shane Battier 3s. But Ibaka hit a big jumper, Perk had back-to-back dunks and KD hit a dagger 3 that basically sealed the deal. Big time response from the Thunder.
- This game had the same kind of anxiety a playoff game does. Each possession felt important, an 11-point lead didn’t feel like enough and it was the type of game you just wanted to win.
- The Heat looked mostly lost. Wade got hot late in the third, but didn’t see the ball much in the fourth. LeBron was passive. Chris Bosh was maybe the most threatening Heat player, other than whoever was standing in the corner. I don’t know if that’s a credit to the Thunder defense, or if it was more of a Heat thing.
- I charted KD and LeBron in isolation and by my count, LeBron scored once on Durant and was 1-of-6 from the floor against him. Said Scott Brooks about Durant’s defense: “That long arm of his, when it’s out, you can’t shoot over it very easily … I tell him every day that if you want to be one of the best players in this league you have to do it both ways of the floor. All the great ones do it both ways. All the guys you get frustrated with are just offensive players and don’t think about the defensive end but he wants to be one of the best in the league and he’s proving that by playing both ends. He’s one of our better perimeter defenders.”
- KD guarded both LeBron and Wade at different times and I’d say he did a fantastic job on both. Durant doesn’t get near enough credit for his improved defense. He still has work to do off the ball, but on it, he’s become one of the best in the league. Yeah, I said it.
- The Thunder found a hole in Miami’s defense. The Heat hedge extremely hard on screens so the Thunder just would slip it with a big and use what Brooks called a “pocket pass” — that little bounce pass between defenders. Once you beat the hedge, it’s just a matter of picking the right option. The Thunder bigs passed extremely well to each other and it resulted in a lot of easy buckets.
- Erik Spoelstra: “Well, we will own this one. They jumped us, everybody saw it. They had us on our heels and they were the aggressors. They were playing more to their identity than we were. They are much more physical and forceful, not only from a physical standpoint but also from a mental standpoint. So we will own it, learn from this and move on.”
- OKC’s now 30-2 when taking a lead into the fourth quarter and 19-0 at home.
- LeBron on the Thunder: “They are quick. You can’t scout for how quick they are. You have to go against them and see. The best thing is we play them again in a week and a half and now we know what to expect.”
- Westbrook’s alley oop to Durant was delectable. All it was missing was John Lucas for KD to jump over.
- After Wade hit a second pull-up 3-pointer, Perk walked straight over to Harden and put his hand up as if to say, “Get a hand up!” It’s true: Harden was just standing with his hands at his side.
- Only four offensive rebounds for Miami.
- KD on the active defense: “I think we did a great job of using our hands … we just tried to use our hands and that got us some deflections and that got us some runouts and we feed off of that and our crowd feeds off of that.”
- Harden: 19 points on 6-7 shooting and six assists. So good.
- KD and others can say this game was just another regular season game all they want, but you don’t bring out Quick Change for just any regular season game.
- If I died today, I think the first question I’d ask God is, “Can you explain Quick Change?”
- If you don’t love what Nick Collison does on a basketball court, you don’t love basketball enough.
- Perk and Ibaka scored 12 of the Thunder’s first 25 points. And nine of OKC’s first 11 buckets had an assist tagged to them.
- A couple fans in 115 held up a Republic of Congo flag every time Ibaka score and a Swiss flag every time Thabo scored. I found this cool.
- Every time Derek Fisher shoots, I have about the least amount of confidence one could have that it is going to go in.
- Westbrook got into some second quarter foul trouble which had Harden playing point almost the entire second. At one point, he was THE point guard on the floor. Like no Westbrook, no Fisher, no Ivey, no Jackson. Harden was the point man. I can’t remember that ever happening.
- I like that the intro video always includes Eric Maynor still.
Next up: At Portland Tuesday.