At the end of my "Durant's Diversity" post last week that depicted how Kevin Durant gave LeBron James and Miami the business in Oklahoma, I proposed out loud that:
"It will be interesting to see how LeBron reacts as an underdog."
Well, after last night's rematch between OKC and Miami, LeBron provided an answer:
34 points (50% shooting), 10 assists, 7 rebounds, and 4 steals.
Something got into LeBron James yesterday.
Maybe it was the Russell Westbrook flagrant foul in the second quarter.
Maybe it was Kevin Durant Slapping him across the head as he went for a dunk in the third quarter.
Or Maybe it was everyone questioning his mettle and saying Durant really is the better player/MVP.
Truth be told, LeBron puts up these types of astronomical numbers on the regular.
The real difference in LeBron's game last night was his aggressiveness on Defense. He was so much more assertive and focused.
If you remember the last game in OKC, LeBron was run off screens and knocked to the floor - which enabled KD to get his shot off quickly and in rhythm. This time in Miami, LeBron was fully prepared for the screens and ran under and/or through them to make sure at the very least he contested all of KD's shots or even better got deflections and steals.
Take a look:
1) KD on the right block, setting LeBron up for a Russell Westbrook downscreen
2) Rather than trail KD, LeBron decides to go under the screen and is met by Westbrook
3) Rather than get in the way, Dywane Wade leaves enough space for LeBron to get under. Plus LeBron is strong enough and determined enough to fight through Westbrook screen.
4) Seeing Perkins pass the ball, LeBron extends his entire body to get a deflection and bat the ball away from Durant.
5) The plays not over yet. Within seconds, LeBron goes from fighting under a screen on the block to chasing the ball out towards half court.
6) Defense to Offense
Believe it or not, but as nice as this play was, LeBron's on the ball defense was even better.
Last game in OKC, if you noticed, LeBron defensively gave KD a bit of space because he was concerned about getting beat off the dribble. As a result KD was in the driver's seat all night long and able to dictate the game. A perfect example was when he hit a buzzer beater at the half over LeBron. KD used the space he was given (and his cross-over) to put LeBron on a string and then comfortably pull up for the jumper. He was in a comfort zone all night, either getting great looks in single coverage or making plays when doubled.
This time in Miami, LeBron was up in the body of KD all game - not giving him any space:
Look at that picture above. LeBron was physical and thus dictated what KD could do. One on one he forced KD to drive or go to his post game and it made all the difference in the world. Confronted with this aggressive defense KD had a whopping 9 turnovers. There was one play in the fourth quarter where KD tried to rip the ball trough on an isolation but LeBron was up on him so much he literally just took the ball from him. Also, think about the buzzer beater KD hit this game at the end of the 3rd quarter. LeBron was playing pressure defense on KD 30 feet from the basket! He forced KD to execute multiple crossovers and then take a tough running floater in the lane. Now, because KD is a great offensive player - he still made the shot. But the important thing is that LeBron made him work for everything and took KD out of his comfort zone. The more you force players to take contested shots off the dribble, even the most skilled like the Durant, the better your chances are as a defender.
Make no mistake, Durant still had (as expected) a superb scoring night: 30 points on 52% shooting. But in contrast to their last meeting, LeBron limited his ability to make his teammates better - relegating KD to only 3 assists and 4 rebounds.
Also, while KD got his points, LeBron's defensive intensity paid dividends late in the game. Think about this: KD started the 4th quarter 4-4, tallying 9 points to lead a late Thunder charge. But with the game in the balance during the last few possessions, KD went 0-2 with a chance to tie or take the lead. One shot was off a KD isolation against LeBron on the left block, which resulted in a baseline fade-away jumper that went off the top of the backboard for a 24-second violation. And on essentaily the final play, LeBron chased down KD off two down screens to contest and perhaps influence a 26 foot three point attempt. It barely grazed the rim.
With perhaps the regular season MVP and best record in the league on the line, LeBron clearly accepted the challenge of guarding Kevin Durant. There were plenty of times last night in which he even waived off his teammates to let them know that he was checking KD. What did we think would happen?
And with this, perhaps we can return to the original intention of "The difference between LeBron and Durant" series. KD is clearly the more skilled offensive player, yet LeBron still outscored him....... and led everyone in the game in assists...... and was the second on his team in rebounds......and led everyone in the game in steals. AND think about this, as much as this dude outperformed KD in every offensive category, I'm writing this post about LeBron's defense!!!!!!
This is the difference between LeBron and Durant. KD gets buckets anyway he wants, but LeBron can score while doing everything else to dominate both sides of the ball.
You might say that even with LeBron's dominant performance the Heat still only won by 5. True story. OKC is after all a really good team and if LeBron isn't the MVP then KD is. No doubt OKC's effort on the road was impressive. But to put LeBron's grip on the game in better perspective, the Heat were +20 when he was on the court. That means the Heat were actually -15 during the time is was not on the court......and that was only 8 minutes!
You might also say a difference is that KD takes/makes more shots/plays in the clutch.
Well what about after the Thunder came all the way back to take the lead in the 4th, LeBron taking over point guard duties to come off screen and rolls on successive plays to find Shane Battier for open threes in the corner? Or how about after the Thunder cut it back to a two point lead, LeBron scored 6 straight points late in the 4th to keep Miami on top? Not to mention LeBron stripping Durant in the 4th and then defending him on the the last two shots mentioned above.
All I can say is, what a difference a week makes.
After the Heat got embarasssed a week ago, they hold court last night and now have essentially the same record as the Thunder and are a game back in the loss column for the best record in the league.
After KD becomes the unanimous choice for MVP, LeBron puts up 41 against Philly, then outplays Durant in every capacity the following night while scoring 34.
LeBron and the Heat back on top?
Let's hope we get to have this debate in June.