And The Award For Best Ensemble Goes To . . .
USA Today Sports
Kevin Durant is better than LeBron James. That’s how we’ll remember January 29, 2014, especially if the Oklahoma City Thunder go on and win the NBA Finals. That statement snugly fits into the narrative and base slowly built by the offensive volcanic eruptions of Durant. Whether it be true or false, we’re ready to anoint the gradual decline of the best player in the last decade. I’m not one to overreact but there are causes for concern in that argument, the main one being that Durant is pretty damned good. And yet, last night’s game rendered that unimportant and represented much more on a gradual level of competition and management: the Miami Heat looked older and slower while the Thunder played the long, quick, and athletic role the Heat themselves were privy to just a few years ago.
We know that Sam Presti is enamored with drafting and/or developing wingspan, height and athleticism. Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, Perry Jones, Jeremy Lamb (traded from Houston), Steven Adams, and Reggie Jackson. Ironically, the player drafted in the mold of “NBA-polished” was James Harden. Regardless, the Heat came out of the gates firing on all cylinders, exhibiting the many aspects of the game they excel in, trapping, hounding weakside players, transition, and ball movement on the wings. The lead ballooned to 18.
Then a funny thing happened. The Thunder had to send KD to the bench with two fouls but countered with Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb, along with the underrated Nick Collison and surprisingly effective Derek Fisher. The Heat were forced to keep chugging along with a washed-up Ray Allen, overmatched Norris Cole, to go along with a slow Shane Battier. Toss in a still hobbling Dwyane Wade and the usual athletic advantage the Heat possess in any given series and game went out the same window that conventional wisdom goes when KD starts scoring on triple-teams.
The Thunder started to grind the Heat offense to a pulp. Thabo Sefolosha got into passing lanes, reading the telegraphed passes from Mario Chalmers. Jones was able to affect shots for an instant with his long arms to let Ibaka recover for blocks. Lamb was quicker to the boards and Jackson was able to penetrate in transition opportunities. They did to the Heat what the Heat had done to other teams in the first three years of King James’ reign.
On offense, the Thunder were able to solve the Heat’s trapping defense, simply passing over the top to Ibaka as a release valve. Ibaka hit enough free-throw line jumpers to keep the Heat sagging deep enough and when that happened, Durant was able to pick-and-roll the Heat to death. Miami’s defense hasn’t been up to snuff all season and they’ve been guilty of some coasting tendencies but in what appeared to be the biggest game of the season so far, they played a step or two behind the Thunder.
Granted, the Thunder won’t shoot 16-27 (59.3 percent) every game but length, athleticism and quickness don’t suddenly vanish even if the three does. Miami is still very much a title contender. They still have LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade. The Eastern Conference playoffs present much less of a littered path. But make no mistake, yesterday night was as much about the Thunder’s development, athleticism and defense as much as Durant’s ascension to the people’s image of the best player in the world.
Did I mention that Russell Westbrook was celebrating in a suit rather than a soaked jersey?
LeBron might still, and probably is, the best player in the world right now. But Kevin Durant has far superior the supporting cast, and that’s scary considering how fast the gap between the two has closed.