Six months later, the Oklahoma City Thunder still might not have found a solution to the riddle that so effectively stumped it last season and stopped its run to the NBA championship.
The problem: LeBron James.
The objective: defending him.
“I think people are still trying to figure that one out,” confessed Kevin Durant.
The Thunder on Tuesday will get another shot at cracking the code that is James. The Christmas Day showcase will be the first time the Thunder has faced James since he bulldozed through OKC and powered his Miami Heat to a 4-1 victory in last year's NBA Finals.
Above all, Tuesday's regular-season rematch will reveal exactly how much better the Thunder has become at defending James.
“We're going to have different guys on him and we have to obviously do a very good job to contain him,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “When he has the monster games, the triple-double-type games of a lot of assists and points, those are the games that they're tough to beat.”
Brooks then simplified the keys to success.
“You need everybody to be dialed in and locked in — and you need a lot of luck to make it work,” he said.
Oklahoma City rarely has had success against James. But few have.
James' physical attributes make him almost impossible to defend. He's built like a power forward, moves with the agility of a small forward, shoots like a shooting guard and handles and passes the ball like a point guard.
In last year's series, nothing worked against James. The Thunder tried Durant and watched James dominate with his size and speed advantages, resulting in costly foul trouble for Durant. OKC tried smaller players, like James Harden and Thabo Sefolosha, and James overpowered them in the post. And when the Thunder tried to trap James with double teams, he just picked apart OKC's defense by finding open teammates on the perimeter.
For the series, James averaged 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 1.6 steals en route to Finals MVP honors.
“LeBron was on a level that not too many players ever were on,” Brooks said. “I thought we did the best we could do.”
OKC will have to do better.
The Thunder and Heat are widely projected to be on a collision course for a Finals rematch. And unless the Thunder can slow down James the next time around, a different outcome is hard to envision.
“You can't just throw anybody on him,” Durant said. “But I think we're athletic enough and quick enough to help and get out on the shooters and contest shots. We just got to make it tough on those guys. That's all we can do. I think our defense is built for that. If we get out to the shooters and contest shots and rebound then we'll give ourselves a chance. But it's easier said than done. We just got to go out there and do it.”
Durant insists he's ready for another round with the league's toughest riddle.
“I got my work cut out for me,” Durant said. “But it's a great challenge. I'm looking forward to it.”