|LeBron had it all along in OKC on Thursday. (Getty Images)|
OKLAHOMA CITY -- After finishing a monster inbound alley-oop dunk to put the Heat up 14 over the Thunder with 4:05 left in the fourth, LeBron James strutted back to the Miami bench, taking a pit stop at midcourt to pump his hands, palms down, at the floor.
I don't know if he was telling everyone in the arena to sit down or just making sure everyone knew he had this thing, but it was definitely a perfect demonstration.
For a sixth straight time, the King ruled the court against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
A brilliant, breathtaking 39-point performance to lead Miami to a 110-100 win over the Thunder.
"We wanted to end this break on a high note," LeBron said. "We didn't just want to come in here and not play well and allow them to do what they wanted to do. We came in with a high level. Mentally, we were in tune from the beginning, and it was a really good roll that we finished."
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Key word in there from LeBron: mentally. Because that's certainly something the Heat have over the Thunder right now. After six straight wins and a whipping on their home floor where Miami led from start to finish, the Heat have put OKC in a mental headlock.
The Thunder started painfully slow as Miami built a double-digit first-quarter lead. Kevin Durant began 0-of-7 from the floor. At halftime, OKC had 12 total baskets and trailed by 17, eventually pumping it to as much as 23. The Thunder were frantic and lost; the Heat were calm and cool. The Thunder were panicked and pressured; the Heat were workmanlike in their processed takedown of a very good team.
Scott Brooks tried to explain the Thunder's loss and performance like this:
"We're not as bad as we played tonight," he said.
That's oversimplifying things, and Brooks went on to give Miami most of the credit for causing that.
It's just February, and some 30 games are yet to be played per team before the playoffs start. A lot can certainly change. But if the Thunder have dreams of hoisting a trophy, and if that road happens to go through Miami again, they are going to have overcome the massive mental edge the Heat have over them.
It was obvious from the opening tipoff. The Heat settled into their offense and allowed the game to flow naturally. The Thunder looked like they were trying to go on a 12-0 run with every possession. Everything was forced. Everything was out of whack. Remember: This is maybe the best offense in basketball, and the Heat completely detonated it.
"Maybe it was nerves, we was too excited. I don't know, man,” said Durant said of their slow start. “That was the game, though, that first quarter. We just kept fighting, kept fighting, but we were battling uphill and that's tough to do against a championship-caliber team.”
Here's the Heat formula for beating the Thunder: Make them play like somebody else. Make them rush, panic and force. Isolate their ball-handlers, and trap hard on screens. Bait them into trying to make tough passes, and eliminate their role players. Brooks said it -- we're not as bad as we played tonight -- but against Miami, they are. Because the Heat understand and exploit the Thunder better than anyone.
And it has led to a six-game winning streak against a very good Thunder team. What was very apparent in the 48 minutes on Thursday was that the Thunder felt the pressure to prove something. Like they had to miraculously break free of the shackles that the Heat have put them in. The Heat, on the other hand, played free and loose. That's the luxury that you have when you're a champion. You don't have to operate on faith anymore. You know you can do it when times get tough and you're backed into a corner. The Thunder don't yet, at least not when they're playing the Heat.
So the question is simple:
"Do we have their number?" Dwyane Wade said when asked. "No. We're not feeling that way. We've just won two games against them, and that's it.
"We've only won two in a row. Last year doesn't matter."
Oh, but it does. That was obvious. The Thunder were clearly trying to exorcize some demons, trying to make right in 48 minutes what went wrong in five games last June.
With as much as the Thunder clearly invested in this game, feverishly coming back to make it a game late, it's clear how bad they wanted it. But instead of a dejected, depressed locker room, the Thunder were mostly upbeat after. Russell Westbrook was asked if he was disappointed.
"Mostly surprised," he said.
Which is probably the best way to describe it. The Thunder are excellent. They know they're a contender, and one more loss to the Heat doesn't change their standing in that select group. But six straight losses to one single team weighs on you, and breaking through becomes a major challenge. It feels like a step, something that has to be overcome.
The Thunder did that in Game 3 of the Western finals against the Spurs last postseason. But if they finally want to break the chains against the Heat, it'll have to come in a Finals rematch. A place where the Heat exorcised their own demons, overcoming the pressure of winning to raise their own banner behind LeBron's brilliance.
Erik Spoestra was asked pregame if he felt LeBron had a certain weight lifted off him by winning that title, if it has allowed him a new freedom as a player. Spoelstra dismissed it, saying it's a nice idea, but that LeBron has always been LeBron, no matter the circumstance. Which is mostly right. In the same way that Durant was Durant on Thursday night -- 40 points on 12-24 shooting -- it was obviously that LeBron's approach was more steady and relaxed.
Winning that title has given the Heat an incredible amount of self-belief, an unshakeable confidence that they can do it no matter the odds or circumstances. The Thunder believe in themselves, too. But until they beat the Heat and prove it, they're still forced to manufacture and manifest on their own.