The scowl on Kevin Durant’s face said he was serious.
But the significance of his issue wasn’t illustrated until the soft-spoken star parted his lips to confront his concern.
Durant had seen enough of the LeBron James love festival in his home arena and this was his attempt to squash it. He started with a stare. It grew into a scolding.
The courtside fan didn’t know what hit him.
With his exploits, James had transformed the gentleman seated in the high-priced seat from fiery foe to friendly fan. For three quarters, the man offered his best Jack Nicholson, mercilessly heckling Cleveland’s superstar forward. No. 23 in the wine and gold even jawed back, on one trip down court appearing to annoyingly mouth the words, ‘Sue me.”
But the fan slowly became a witness.
James ended the first half by scoring each of the Cavs’ final 12 points. He had two three-point plays, a jump hook off the glass from the right block and two rim-rocking dunks. Twelve minutes later, James ended the third period in even more spectacular fashion, burying a barrage of deep 3-pointers en route to scoring Cleveland’s final 10 points of the period.
By then, James had the middle-aged man fawning over his feats.
Just before James inbounded the ball near the fan at the start of the final period, the man extended a closed fist. James graciously bumped knuckles. Durant, noticing the exchange while wrangling with his shoe laces, furrowed his brow then took exception.
“You supposed to be on our side,” Durant said, pinching a piece of his white Thunder jersey. “What kind of fan are you?”
Durant had made his statement — although it would have rung louder had he not gone 0-for-6 with two turnovers in the decisive fourth quarter. With the concise confrontation, one that was not completely caught on camera and certainly unclear to much of the sold out crowd of 18,203, Durant sent a subliminal message that he’s sick of playing second fiddle and tired of his Thunder taking a backseat.
Imagine it from Durant’s viewpoint. Here he is, standing toe-to-toe with one of the game’s best, matching the league’s reigning MVP shot-for-shot, scratching and searching for yet another statement victory, and he can’t tighten up his shoe laces for the stretch run without seeing what’s supposed to be a supporter fist-bumping Bron Bron.
That’s why the reprimand was as encouraging of an act as we’ve seen from Durant, who slowly is shedding his shell and growing before our eyes and learning how to lead.
It said Durant is holding everyone accountable, from himself to his teammates to his home fans.
It said the Thunder’s budding star wants more responsibility and has prepared his scrawny shoulders to bear the blow should that desire backfire.
It said the face of the franchise is now ready to play the part, willing to speak up when needed and offer his opinion on the direction of the organization — even if it means starting with simple instructions on how to properly root for the home team.
“He just needed to kind of go through the league and get bumped and bruised a little bit to figure out how not only he can be effective as an individual, but how he can help his team be effective and have success in the win-loss column,” said Cavs coach Mike Brown of Durant. “The maturation process that he’s going through is evident not only in his numbers but in the team’s win-loss record. Because that’s what superstars do.”
- This was one of the most entertaining games of the season…right until the final 7 1/2 minutes, when the Thunder sucked the energy out of the building because it couldn’t make a shot.
- OKC was 6-for-20 from the field in the fourth quarter and 1-for-8 from beyond the 3-point line.
- Shots did everything but fall for the Thunder in the fourth. Most of the attempts were quality shots. They just wouldn’t go down.
- Even though the shots were good looks, the troubling thing is too many attempts were from the perimeter. There were very few drives to the basket and the aggressiveness the Thunder attacked with earlier disappeared.
- After shooting 29 free throws in the first three quarters, the Thunder had zero attempts in the fourth period.
- Mo Williams had the play of the game with his halfcourt heave that gave the Cavs a 94-87 lead with 4:07 remaining.
- What went unnoticed is how Thabo Sefolosha wasn’t able to get to the loose ball that he deflected because Shaquille O’Neal’s size 23s tripped him when O’Neal came to set a back pick to free up Williams. It should have been a foul on O’Neal.
- Still, if you know anything about Mo Williams, you knew that shot had a good chance of going in when he gathered it and launched. I leaned over to Mike Baldwin right before he scooped up the loose ball and told him Williams was going to sink it. I knew because I knew Williams has hit big shots over and over and over and over again throughout his career.
- LeBron James gives paying customers a show every time he steps on the floor. He does it all on the court and is getting to the point where he no longer has a weakness. Given his size, strength and passing ability, I’m a little surprised he doesn’t post up more. And his free throw percentage, while improving, seemingly should be in the 80s.
- The most impressive play of the night from LeBron wasn’t the lefty dunk he threw down or the reverse two-handed slam or any of his five-deep 3-pointers. It was an assist he had in the first half, when he cut backdoor from the left baseline, caught the ball and in one motion made a touch pass to a cutting J.J. Hickson for a layup. On that play, you saw LeBron’s court vision and basketball IQ, two areas of his game that are just as impressive as all of his skywalking slams.
- The plan wasn’t to let LeBron get his and contain everyone else, but the Thunder unintentionally did a solid job of that. Williams, with 22 points, was the only other player in double-digit scoring.
- You could make the argument that the Cavs don’t win this game without Anderson Varejao. Shaquille O’Neal was saddled with foul trouble the entire night and Varejao did more than just fill in for the big fella. Varejao had 10 boards, five on the offensive end, and kept several other balls alive. It lead to a 11-6 advantage in second-chance points for Cleveland and helped the Cavs attempt 15 more shots than the Thunder.
- Give Nenad Krstic credit for his excellent defense on O’Neal. That seemed like it would be an ugly match up going in, but Krstic battled all night and won the individual battle. You could have asked Krstic to only hit more jump shots and expose Cleveland’s bigs as defenders away from the basket.
- Kevin Durant had one of those fourth quarters. It was a disappointing end to what had been an impressive performance for Durant, who stood toe-to-toe with LeBron for three quarters.
- Jeff Green had a season-high 26 points and was active throughout. But he’ll tell you he wasn’t satisfied with his four rebounds.
- Shaun Livingston is getting the backup point guard minutes, but the ball typically is in James Harden’s hands when they’re on the court together. Harden brings the ball up the court and frequently initiates the pick-and-roll.
- Nick Collison took a charge on Varejao, and I’m starting to wonder where Collison ranks this season in drawing offensive fouls. He’s missed a good amount of time but I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s ranked pretty high.
- Delonte West could have had a severe headache after the game, been deep in thought or praying for all I know. But (and I’m not making light of this) seeing him sitting at his locker with a towel blanketing his head and his palm pressed against his face made me think about how serious his legal and personal problems might be. I’ll never know, but it’s issues like those that people like GM Sam Presti know about before trading a talent like West. Although I’ve questioned Presti in the past for essentially giving away West, the postgame sighting made me rethink the why to that particular move.
- Just before tip-off, Shaq motioned to Kyle Weaver from opposite ends of the court and inquired about the Thunder’s shooting guard’s injured shoulder. Weaver mouthed to O’Neal that he injured it in practice. Shaq gave Weaver a look as if to say, ‘Tough luck.’ Don’t ask me how Shaq knows Kyle Weaver.
THEY SAID IT
- Scott Brooks on LeBron James: “He was in a zone, there was no doubt. You can’t do much about it. He’s one of the best players in the world.”
- Cavs coach Mike Brown on James: “LeBron did a great job tonight with 44 points, seven rebounds and six assists. And you think that is just a normal game for him but it’s not. And that is how crazy his play has been this year.”
- Mike Brown on Kevin Durant: “You aren’t stopping a guy like Kevin Durant. You just try and contain him. He has matured in the league. He needed to go through the league and get some of those bumps and bruises. He is on track to have a lot of success for this OKC team.”
- Brown on Mo Williams‘ halfcourt shot: “It was spectacular. When it left his hands I had a great look at it. I felt it was good. It’s a tribute to me being our halfcourt shooting coach.”
- James on his late-game performance: “I can get it going every now and then. It felt good, especially because we were down at that time. So for me to get hot at the right time was good.”
- James on the fourth quarter: “We just turned it up a little bit more. The fourth quarter is where we always make our mark. We definitely played hard in the fourth quarter. And we were the reason why they missed a lot of easy shots. We made it tough on them.”
- James on Williams’ halfcourt shot: “That was great. When you practice with me every day on them halfcourt shots, sometimes it pays off. And that was a huge shot. It was much bigger than the shot itself because we were only up like four with like 3 1/2 minutes left. So that put us up three possessions and that was a big shot.”
- James on the Thunder’s improvement: “They’re a better team. Another year of experience helps them, of course. Another year for coach Brooks. They’ve got some very good athletic young guys. And the fact that they’ve been together for two years now helps them.”
- James on his first-quarter, french-fry theft: “Wasn’t nobody sitting there. The french fries had their own seat. That wasn’t from a kid.”
- Williams on his halfcourt heave: “Any shot like that hurts. You think you have a big stop with three seconds left on the shot clock and you’re down only four. Then, it’s all of a sudden down seven. It takes the life out of you. That was a big shot.”
BY THE NUMBERS
4: Made 3-pointers by the Thunder on 16 attempts.
11: Made 3-pointers by Cleveland on 22 attempts.
12: Straight missed shots by the Thunder inside the final 7 1/2 minutes.
15: Biggest lead by the Cavs.
30: Made field-goals by the Thunder, six more than its season-low.
44: Points by Cavs forward LeBron James.
18,203: Announced attendance at the Ford Center, the eighth sellout of the season.