LeBron James evens up with Kevin Durant as Miami sends a message

By Royce Young | NBA writer

OKLAHOMA CITY -- In Oklahoma City, it's a simple tradition. Stand until the home team scores its first points, then take your seat and go about enjoying the game.

But on a night with the Miami Heat visiting, and Russell Westbrook returning, Chesapeake Energy Arena was so cranked up that after an opening Westbrook dunk, they remained on their feet.

Another bucket to make it 4-0, this one on a soaring layup by Serge Ibaka, and they were still standing.

That's when LeBron James sat them down.

With a 20-foot jumper, he informed everyone they could now take their seats, then with an emphatic dunk 15 seconds later, he buckled them in. The four-time MVP scored 12 straight points en route to 16 in the first quarter to double up the Thunder, 34-17, to open the game.

"We knew he was going to come out aggressive," said Chris Bosh. "I didn't think he was going to have so many points consecutively like that, but when he sets the tone for this team, and coming out and being a leader the way he does, it really helps us out."

Feeling his throne threatened by Durant, was it a message? Or was LeBron just playing awesome basketball, something he's completely capable of doing any given night? We all love our narratives and the MVP chase is fun, but this was just about LeBron doing LeBron things.

"He did what very few could do, impact and set the tone," said Erik Spoelstra. "He's an absolute throwback, in terms of being a two-way player and understanding how important it is."

The Heat made simple work of the Thunder for more reasons than just LeBron -- their Big 3 scored 81 points combined, as many as OKC put up in total -- and there was a clear amount of rust and discombobulation brought from Westbrook's return. In Miami, Jeremy Lamb and Derek Fisher combined for 33 points on 12-of-17 shooting. Tonight, they gave the Thunder four on 2 for 12. The Thunder hit 16 of 27 from 3 in Miami. They went 2 for 20 tonight.

“The [Heat] did the same thing they did in Miami, but we did a better job [there] separating and making pinpoint passes on time and on target,” Scott Brooks said. “And we were making some shots. When you make 3s, the defense has tough decisions to make. We made 16 3s, and that kind of got lost in the big-small lineup shuffle. People made a big deal out of that. We made 16 3s and tonight, we went 2-20. So there's a big difference. There's a big difference how we play offensively when the shots aren't going and there's a big difference in how the defense plays when the shots aren't going. They're loading up to the basketball, they're not worried about shots when they're not falling.”

It's just February yet, but this wasn't an ordinary regular season NBA game. It featured the most credentials ever handed out in the regular season by the Thunder since they moved to OKC. It featured Westbrook's return. And it featured a showdown between the game's undisputed two best players, with talk of individual glory on the line. With Durant already holding an edge with a strong 112-95 win in Miami where he outplayed James, it was up to LeBron to respond and extend the debate a little further.

In 33 minutes, 33 points on 15-for-22 shooting, seven rebounds and three assists (and eight turnovers, but let's conveniently ignore those for the sake of this current narrative). And a possible "Heisman Moment," if you will, in which LeBron took a blow from Serge Ibaka right in the nose, took another step, then elevated and detonated a poster over him to crush basically every hope at a Thunder comeback. LeBron then lay under his basket, blood pouring onto the hardwood. But the job was finished, and his statement was already made.

Is it enough to flip the steam engine of MVP momentum Durant has built with a legendary January? Maybe. There are about 25 games remaining and while Durant holds a considerable edge in most statistical categories, this was an absolutely necessary win for LeBron if he was to have a hope. A 2-0 season series to Durant would've ended the discussion right then and there.

Instead, the slate is wiped clean and it's a split for each (unless you're a prisoner of the moment and only remember what you last saw, then LeBron beat Durant and it's over). Now, it's about the total picture of the season, and evaluating what we see over this final stretch.

We didn't get the classic LeBron-Durant showdown in either game the Heat and Thunder played, with both games turning into blowouts. The games between these two haven't been close. But the MVP race just got that way.

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