MIAMI This was perhaps the most gifted basketball player in the world playing at his God-given best on defense.
This was LeBron James, the oft-maligned and always-criticized Miami Heat forward, defending Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City All-Star who is maybe the NBA's most talented scorer. And James took it personally.
"Anytime you get an opportunity to go against one of the best," James said, "you definitely take the challenge."
In this battle between the NBA's top two MVP candidates, James won. He crowded Durant, got all up into his business, and shut him down in the Heat's 98-93 victory over the Thunder in Wednesday's nationally-televised showdown.
With 1:24 left and the Heat leading, 94-93, Durant threw up an awkward fadeaway jumper that glanced off the top of the backboard as time expired on the shot clock.
With 19.5 seconds left, and Oklahoma City trailing, 96-93, Durant ran off screen from baseline to top of key, with James trailing, and put up a 26-foot three-pointer that missed badly.
"You've got to want that matchup," Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. "He accepted the challenge and that's what we expect him to do as our leader and our MVP candidate."
OK, James didn't really shut him down. Durant ended with 30 points on 11-of-21 shooting. But Durant had nine turnovers. In the second half, Durant had 15 points, but on 5-for-11 shooting with five turnovers. In the fourth quarter he had nine points on 4-of-6 shooting.
But as crazy as it sounds, James, a three-time first-team All-Defensive selection, did a damn good job on Durant defensively. With 1:24 left and the Heat leading, 94-93, Durant, with James pressuring him, threw up an awkward fadeaway jumper that glanced off the top of the backboard as time expired on the shot clock.
With 19.5 seconds left, and Oklahoma City trailing, 96-93, Durant, with James locked-in and trailing, ran off screen from baseline to top of key and put up a 26-foot three-pointer that missed badly.
James was successful all night, and those were just two late-game examples.
"It's about as tough a cover as you can get and LeBron really worked the game," coach Erik Spoelstra said.
When these teams met last week, in that 103-87 smackdown victory by Oklahoma City, Durant had 28 points, nine rebounds and eight assists with just two turnovers. He was all over the place
It was an embarrassment to the Heat, and especially to James.
"I'm a competitor," James said. "I didn't play like I know I'm capable of playing in that game."
So James, who, by the way, also scored a game-high 34 points on Wednesday, grabbed seven rebounds, handed out 10 assists and had four steals, vowed to improve on that shabby performance. He dug in, stayed with Durant as he ran off screens, kept a hand in his face on jumpers, and generally made himself another appendage, linking himself to Durant's upper body.
For all the abuse James takes for being a choker on offense, you never hear that charge against James defensively. Ever. He performs on defense. He defends all five positions and usually takes the opponent's best scorer. Do you remember him locking down Chicago's Derrick Rose in last year's Eastern Conference finals? Wednesday's performance against Durant was reminiscent of that impressive defensive effort.
"LeBron took the challenge, got into his airspace," forward Chris Bosh said of James' defense on Durant, "and that's really not easy to do."
Durant's game is no surprise to James. The two worked out together for a week during the summer at the University of Akron. They called it hell week. It was two-day-workouts and they were grueling. But even amid mind-numbing fatigue the two still found a way to compete. It was the same thing Wednesday, especially late when the game was painfully close, with neither team gaining more than a two-possession lead.
"It reminded me of the summer when we were both working out together, pushing each other staying on top of each other," James said. "Even though we were working out together we were looking at each other, trying to be the best in those workouts."
On Wednesday, only one could be the best, and it was James, and that was because of his work on the defensive end.