The Heat beat the Thunder 110-100 in Oklahoma City last night. That’s the immediate fact. The Heat got their best road win of the year in the teams’ second 2012 Finals rematch (and quite possibly 2013 Finals preview) of the season. It firmly established the Heat as the NBA’s team to beat (not that they weren’t already, as the defending champs and all), reminding us that however listlessly they’ve drifted through parts of this season, the Miami Heat have the potential to be an essentially unbeatable basketball team.
But there was something a little deeper at play, too, for basketball purists. While the Heat dominated most of the way and were never in any real danger of losing, the best players from both teams last night – who happen to not only be the two best players in basketball, but all but guaranteed to be two of the best ever – demonstrated amply why they’re the best, and it was a beautiful thing to watch. So, whether you just want to relive what LeBron James and Kevin Durant did last night, or you didn’t get a chance to see for yourself… let’s watch.
1. LeBron James
Yeah, LeBron’s streak of 30+ point/60+ shooting percentage games ended last night. It’s also arguable that his performance last night was better all-around than anything he put together during the streak. No, he didn’t shoot 60 percent, but 14-for-24 is pretty damn close (58.3%) to that mark, and with an overall stat line of 39 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists, and two steals, we’re inclined to forgive him for coming a couple percentage points short of extending his shooting streak, especially since he was doing it all on the road against one of the league’s top teams.
Looking at LeBron’s physical dominance above – really, looking at his physical dominance pretty much whenever he’s on the court, especially his patented head-of-steam drives to the basket – an analogy to a runaway freight train seems apt. At least at first, until you realize that LeBron is in total control of his instrument on the court right now in a way that a runaway freight train, by definition, isn’t. No, if LeBron’s a locomotive right now, he’s a train on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen high-speed line – a triumph of engineering refined for peak practicality, his gifts perfectly focused on an end goal he achieves with ruthless efficiency.
No one in the game right now – and hardly anyone who’s ever played it – has corralled such extreme abilities into a cohesive whole the way LeBron has over last several years, but most especially since last year’s playoffs, and even more so over the last couple weeks. When it looks like he can’t possibly be any better, he raises the bar once again. The level of play he’s put forth over the past seven games almost certainly isn’t remotely sustainable even for a player of his caliber, but LeBron at least makes you wonder a bit. And that we can even dare to dream he could take his game up still another level is a testament to his almost-frightening gifts. But only almost. Instead, he’s just exhilarating.
2. Kevin Durant
LeBron’s the league’s best player right now. His seamless combination of dominant scoring ability, passing and defense – in general, an ability to take on pretty much whatever role is required of him at a given time – ensure that. But Kevin Durant is a worthy foil, and that was especially apparent last night, even as the Thunder were practically blown out of the building for most of the game. Like his team as a whole, Durant got off to a slow start. He shot just 2-for-10 in the first half, and absorbed this fall:
But in a way, Durant’s poor early shooting only served to highlight his best-in-the-game pure scoring abilities. Despite that ugly 2-for-10 number, he still went into halftime with 14 points, thanks to a 9-for-9 performance at the line. 14 points on 10 shots is actually pretty good from an efficiency standpoint, so one can only wonder what Durant’s line would have looked like if his shots had fallen.
…Wait, actually we don’t need to imagine that, because late in the game, Durant’s shot did start falling. While the Thunder were completely dominated for most of the night, the 110-100 final score looks at least respectable – and that’s almost entirely because Durant lost it in the fourth quarter, scoring 22 of OKC’s 31 points and eventually upping his shooting percentage to an even 50 (12-for-24), finishing with 40 on the night. And that was without his normally-trusty 3-point shot working (1-for-5 from long range). He scored every other way, though, as you can see above – jumpers, acrobatic lay-ins near the basket… and, of course, that flawless performance from the line.
That’s not to say all Durant does is score, either. He’s consistently improved his all-around game, and he’s probably got a few years’ worth of improvement left before he peaks. Of course, his final line from last night – 40 points, eight rebounds, four assists, a steal, and three blocks – shows how robust his game already is.
He’s not the same player as LeBron, which owes at least in part to stark differences in body type – but that makes it even more fun. They’re each different kinds of great, which last night lent itself to an almost impossible variety of spectacular plays between the two. It might not have been the most exciting game, but if you like to watch two of the most gifted players ever to play basketball do their thing, it didn’t get much better. Oh, and most games between the two teams won’t be this lopsided either. All due respect to the many great players in teams right now – but if LeBron and Durant are going to bring this out in one another consistently, please let there be a Finals rematch.
Getty photo, by Streeter Lecka