It’s hard for me to admit, as a Celtics fan, as someone who trudged out of an East Village Boston sports bar redoubt just a few nights ago not ready to say goodbye to a valiant, aging team, but this was how the NBA Finals were supposed to go down this year. This shortened season’s final series was not supposed to be about creaky, old, big men and sprained knees and shoulders flying out of sockets like cannonballs. No. What we needed—and what we got—was this, a feast of young, hungry, supremely athletic hoops talent. Miami–Oklahoma City. Basketball Thanksgiving.
At some point, faced with such high-quality ball, it’s time for the ire and the ill-will (directed both toward LeBron James by most of the nation and the Thunder’s ownership by the jilted fans of Seattle) to recede, at least for a couple weeks, for the sake of enjoying the remarkable spectacle of so much talent on the court at the same time.
Last night, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant showed why so many prognosticators are picking Oklahoma City, leading the Thunder to a 105–94 victory over the Heat. Westbrook was great, but Durant was better, flaunting his deadly efficiency (36 points on 12–20 shooting) and expanded offensive arsenal on the biggest stage of all.
It’s very hard to describe Durant; there’s a constant risk of abusing similes or mixing metaphors. The closest comparison I can muster is that he’s like some sort of angry ghost. There’s never a trace of superfluous motion, of wasted effort. He glides almost instantly from place to place as if unbound by mortal shackles such as gravity and momentum. There are possessions where LeBron works tirelessly to get a shot, backing down a defender, dribbling, dribbling, faking once or twice and finally shooting. With Durant, it’s different. Everything seems so hard-wired, preprogrammed. He compresses the most spectacular moves and shots into only their most essential constituent parts. He’s a master basketball distiller. Even when he’s engaged in what is becoming a special mid-range postgame, there’s so little violence to the havoc he wreaks on offense. There he is, top of the key, back to Dwyane Wade. There he is at the foul line. Oh, he scored on a nifty turnaround—when did that happen?
The Thunder seized control in the fourth quarter. But in a sense, the game was lost for Miami in the second, with the Heat holding one of those classic this-lead-means-nothing first-half leads of 10, give or take. The Heat had several opportunities to push the cushion up toward 15 or 20 (leads which do mean something), and simply couldn’t hit the open shots offered up by a Thunder team that hadn’t yet asserted itself defensively. On the road in as electric a building as Chesapeake Energy Arena, that’s a recipe for second-half disappointment. And the disappointment came in an endless series of Thunder pull-up jumpers and kick-out jumpers and layups late in the game.
The Thunder made the Heat’s defense, which has stymied so many good teams, look frustrated and bewildered and silly.
One of the most compelling things about Game 1 was watching the Heat get out-Heated by the Gatling-gun athleticism of the Thunder. All season and playoffs long, the Heat have been able to lean heavily on their athletic advantage, particularly on defense, where LeBron and Wade are a perimeter nightmare. Their ability to outrun and outjump gives them a consistently generous margin for error, which is a huge luxury. But Oklahoma City has defensive horses, too—more of them—and in the second half, they pestered the Heat mercilessly, although the best example actually came in the first, when Durant sprinted (except he never really seems to sprint; he has that Randy Moss–like ability to convey himself at an alarming speed while appearing to trot) the length of the court to reject Wade (and then got a layup at the other end). How many dozens of times have we seen James or Wade make that exact play?
The same role-reversal was evident on the other side of the ball. The Thunder made the Heat’s defense, which has stymied so many good teams, look frustrated and bewildered and silly. When you have to deal with not one but two players who can more or less get whatever shot they want whenever they want it (and that’s to say nothing of Harden, who had a very quiet night but who is a matchup nightmare in his own right), things break down.
After the crushing disappointment of last year’s anointment interrupted, the last thing the Heat want to do is return to Miami down 0–2. All the pressure will be on No. 6 Thursday night. So while this is already ultra-high-octane basketball, it’s only going to get better.
Your move, LeBron.