OKLAHOMA CITY -- They are the two most explosive players in the game offensively, but it was the differing approaches at the less glamorous end of the floor that defined Kevin Durant and LeBron James as the NBA Finals began Tuesday. Durant guarded his rival for much of Game 1, while James tried to guard everyone.
Isn't that who they are? And isn't it going to have to change? Durant's skills have always been more focused on a few areas, and on shooting in particular, while James does everything. It's only one result, but this 105-94 comeback win by the Thunder suggests that James will have to spend more time dealing personally with his friend as the games grow in importance.
"Kevin always wants to guard the best player," Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. "He was guarding LeBron, and we felt that was a tough matchup. But he wanted to guard him."
It goes without saying that James would have preferred to switch onto Durant, especially in the fourth quarter when Durant was exploding for 17 of his 36 points. James is one of the most active -- and surely the most versatile -- defenders in the NBA, and in other series James has guarded everyone from Rajon Rondo to Kevin Garnett to Derrick Rose over the last couple of years. On Tuesday night he too often found himself on the wrong side of the floor watching Durant seizing a 1-0 lead.
"KD got a couple looks that we don't like," James said. "He had two transition threes that we gave up where he had nobody on him, and he had a couple jumpers that we didn't like either, with nobody on him. We need to make adjustments. We will make adjustments."
Yes, they will. James will guard him.
"No, it wasn't my choice," James said of his defensive assignment. "It was a suggestion that Spo [coach Erik Spoelstra] brought up, and I thought it was good early on for us. It gave us an opportunity to switch a lot of pick-and-rolls. ... Whatever the case may be, we had a good game plan to start the game."
The idea was to put Shane Battier on Durant and enable James to guard Kendrick Perkins, who was traded to Oklahoma City last year in part because the Celtics didn't want to pay big money to a center who didn't demand defensive attention. James would be able to leave Perkins (four points in 25 minutes) and cover the paint like a linebacker, deflecting passes and creating fumbles. There are times when James needs to be able to play that role because his only peer when it comes to defensive freelancing is Kobe Bryant, and in this game his steals would account for four of Oklahoma City's 10 turnovers. And yet it can't be viewed as a successful strategy because James wasn't able to block any shots (another of his favorite tricks off the ball). The Thunder committed only two turnovers throughout the second half, and they shot 51.9 percent against one of the league's best defenses. Miami created little pressure.
"This was the feel-out game," James said. "We come out with a lot of energy, try to steal Game 1, and now we get an opportunity to go to the chalkboard, go to the film and have a better game plan in Game 2."
This could not have been a more promising start for Durant and the young Thunder. Their inexperience showed, but they recovered quickly. They looked awful at times while trailing throughout the opening half, going down by as many as 13 points. "Just being in the Finals, we kind of were nervous, I guess," said Durant, who attempted only four field goals over the second and third quarters. But they improved defensively in the third quarter to turn a seven-point halftime deficit into a 74-73 advantage entering the fourth.
To that point there was no complaining about the defense played by Battier. Though Battier is listed at 6-foot-8, his deficits in length and athleticism to the 6-9 Durant are abundant. But his knowledge and instincts were not to be taken for granted as Durant was limited to 10 field goal attempts (3-of-5 on three-pointers) for his 19 points with a quarter still to play. It's from that moment going forward that James must be given the responsibility for stopping Miami's best opponent, as well as the opportunity to reaffirm himself as the NBA's best player.
There were times that James switched onto Durant, but in the fourth quarter his most important assignment was to deal with Russell Westbrook, who responded with four assists. In the meantime, Durant was up-faking Dwyane Wade for a mid-range jumper or nailing a three-pointer against Battier. When Westbrook looked up to see James in front of him, his arms spread wide, the Thunder point guard simply dumped a couple of short passes to Durant for a driving layup over the top that was impossible for Battier to stop, and then for a flash-out three against Wade that gave OKC a 91-83 lead with 4:42 remaining.
The underdog Heat must find a way to make the Thunder uncomfortable and to make them feel a kind of pressure they've never experienced before. James must supply that pressure, and the best way for him to generate it is defensively. He was the linebacker in this game, and real linebackers look forward to their first big hit. For James the equivalent would have been to make a few big stops and generate the urgency to finish what he started -- to work himself into the block, drive into the paint and create the easy baskets and earn the free throws that wore out the Celtics last week and will provide Miami with its best hope of controlling the pace over these most important games ahead.
James has spent the past year reinventing himself to become a more physically aggressive player, a traditional low-post threat. In this game he was not at all passive. But it was as if he was experimenting frantically, trying to find any kind of spot where he could make a difference. He finished with 30 points (11-of-24 shooting) with nine rebounds, but his four assists were offset by four turnovers, and his nine free throws amounted to half of his team's attempts. Nine isn't enough for him and 18 isn't enough for them.
"We're a better defensive team than we showed tonight," Spoelstra said, "and a lot of those situations were 50-50 balls. They pounded us in all the big-muscle areas -- the rebounding, second-chance points, points in the paint.
"When we're not defending, we don't get opportunities in the open court. And then when we don't attack, we don't get as many opportunities in the paint or the free throw line."
He was talking about his team overall, but he may as well have been talking about James. This night belonged to Durant, and maybe it helped him that it began with him guarding the three-time MVP. Maybe it was no coincidence that by the end of the game Durant was the best player on the floor. The Heat must quickly find a way to turn that advantage upside down. The best way to do that is to challenge Durant defensively, and Miami's best defender is James. To win that matchup is to win the championship.