Foul or not, the fact remains that the NBA’s best two players already are exceeding the hype of their highly anticipated duel through the first two games of this series.
That momentary battle for an inch of space, which James won by yielding no ground, illustrates their intense struggle for an NBA title.
“That’s competition,” said Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra. “This is going to be probably like this every single game, and that’s the beauty of competition at this level, and embracing that competition and seeing what it brings out of you.”
Durant and James have both scored 30 points or more in each game and served as the catalysts for wins for their respective teams. Durant delivered a knockout in Game 1 with a 17-point fourth-quarter barrage that propelled his team to victory. James scored a decision in Game 2 as he endured a 16-point fourth-quarter barrage from Durant, made all of the game-clinching plays and sent the Heat back home to Miami, where it will host the next three games, with a split.
In his Finals debut, Durant showed more poise and composure down the stretch than did James, who is playing in June for the third time in his career. Durant ignored the pressure and Heat forward Shane Battier’s hand in his face, to methodically lead his team to a comeback victory.
Durant, the three-time scoring champion, also took on the challenge of defending James in that game and outscored him 36-30. More impressively, Durant had three more fourth-quarter points than James and 2006 Finals MVP Dwyane Wade combined.
Over the next two days, Durant had to answer questions about being the best player in the game, his chances of going down as the best to ever come out of Washington and even whether he would take the mantle as best ever from Michael Jordan. Durant deflected the praise with laughter, understanding the fickle nature of playoff series and how, at age 23, he still remains far from his desired destination.
“I have faith in all those things that I do day in and day out — coming in, working hard, believing in myself and my teammates, and believing in the system. Whatever happens after that, it happens,” he said.
But James sent out a reminder on Thursday that he is, indeed, the three-time league most valuable player and an unstoppable force when he doesn’t settle for long jumpers and bullies his way into the lane. His aggressive play led to tough finishes with both hands and repeated trips to the foul line, where he buried all 12 of his free throws. James took it to Durant and Thabo Sefolosha — who was effective against him in the fourth quarter of Game 1 — and extended his string of consecutive games with at least 30 points to five.
“You can’t just put one guy on me and allow him to be on an island and defend me one-on-one,” James said. “For me, it’s all about aggression. You know, I just try to get into the paint, make things happen, create for myself, create for others and put pressure on the defense. For me, that’s what my game is all built around.”
But even with James at his most dominant, Durant was unwilling to surrender on Thursday, even after he picked up a silly fifth foul with more than 10 minutes remaining.
After guarding Durant for just two possessions in Game 1, James asked Spoelstra for the assignment down the stretch. Durant shook off James and still scored a flurry of points. His five-points-in-13-seconds burst brought the Thunder within two points with 37.5 seconds remaining. Despite the Thunder’s inability to keep him from scoring inside, James missed a long three-pointer, giving Durant an opportunity to send the game into overtime or go for the win.
Durant has hit three game-winning jumpers this postseason — including two in a second-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers when he seized the title of best closer from Kobe Bryant — but James made his stand. He then rebounded Durant’s miss, was fouled and made both free throws.
“I want to guard the best at the biggest point in the game,” James said. “KD is an unbelievable talent. I think we all see that. He can make any shot on the floor. He’s made tough shots all year, all series, and just that one, he missed.”
Both players finished with 32 points, but James had the edge in the area that mattered most. Round 3 is Sunday.