OKLAHOMA CITY -- LeBron James seems to be most everyone's MVP, even if it is still just March. But if Sunday's showdown between the Thunder and Heat was supposed to be a Finals preview, Kevin Durant would be your Finals MVP.
Leading up to the game, Durant said this one didn't mean anything more, was just another one of 66 and wasn't going to send any messages. Well, they might not have been intentional, but a couple messages were sent pretty loud and clear: 1) This MVP race isn't over and 2) The Thunder are game for anyone.
In one of his most complete games of his career, Durant put up a LeBron-like line of 28 points, nine rebounds and eight assists along with some pretty stellar defense on his counterpart in a 103-87 Thunder rout. Oklahoma City swarmed Miami forcing 21 turnovers while piling up easy points on run-outs and dunks. The Thunder punched (or kicked) the Heat and never got hit back. OKC played meaner, tougher and more physical. The Heat looked lost about themselves for most of the game while the Thunder's bash brothers of Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka sealed off the paint, controlled the glass and found each other for simple slams.
"They jumped us, everybody saw it," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "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.”
Consider this: Since the Thunder acquired Perkins last season, OKC has played Miami twice. Those games both went the Thunder's way with OKC winning by 11 and now 16. Last season's win was the first time Durant had ever beat LeBron. Now he's got a two-game streak.
Still, Durant wanted to downplay the importance of the win, calling it just another game and blah blah blah. Not to call him a liar, but the razor sharp focus Durant came out with in the first half suggests otherwise. He was completely locked in starting the game 8-10 from the floor while dishing out six assists in the first half. He defended both LeBron and Wade and was the one entirely in control of the court. Normally that's LeBron's game, but Durant had it all to himself as James looked mostly helpless.
LeBron's the world's best player. I won't argue against that. But when he's opposing Durant, there's something about the matchup that feels different. The wind seems to blow a different way. Normally, it's a given LeBron's the best player on the floor, no matter who he's playing. Not when No. 35 is out there though. It's a lesson we might be learning: LeBron is the best basketball player on the planet. Except when he's playing Kevin Durant.
The things that most have knocked Durant for -- defense and passing -- he excelled at Sunday. It was almost like Durant was making his own private statement against the league's most complete player. I'm a pretty well-rounded basketball player myself, you know.
“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. The narrative we love to write with LeBron is that he's afraid of the moment, the big game, the big shot. But there's no denying it -- he looked passive in OKC Sunday. Maybe it was because Durant had him completely out of sorts, or maybe it was because he's a bit banged up. LeBron said after the game he's in a bit of a funk, but in a prime-time game like the one his Heat walked into Sunday, you've got to be more ready than that.
And that's the thing with Durant. You're not going to find many examples of a game he didn't look ready to play. In fact, he looks like the kind of player that relishes these type of games. The kind of player that elevates in the moment.
But trophies aren't won in March, whether they're of the MVP or championship variety. Academically, it is just another game. Another game the Thunder were tougher and more prepared than the Heat. Another game the Thunder won head-to-head. And another game Durant appeared to close the gap on LeBron.