NEW YORK — The moment Perry Jones III has spent a season and a half preparing for arrived Wednesday night, in one of the most pressure-packed scenarios possible.
It came at halftime, on the road, against the two-time defending champions.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks strolled into the locker room and delivered the news.
“The first thing he said was ‘Perry, you're going to start this half,'” Jones said. “And he told me I was guarding LeBron.”
Yeah, that LeBron.
For a second-year player, those words could have sent fear throughout Jones' 6-foot-11 inch frame.
Instead, the opposite happened. Jones felt up to the challenge.
“It made me feel good that he has that trust in me that I can guard LeBron,” Jones said. “He could have picked anybody else, but he came and picked me because he believed that I could. And that's exactly what I did.”
When the Thunder flipped Wednesday's game on its head — turning an 18-point deficit into a 25-point lead and eventual 17-point blowout — it wasn't just the result of Brooks' decision to sit starting center Kendrick Perkins in favor of Jones at the start of the second half. It also was the Thunder's ability to unexpectedly exploit an aging Heat roster with spry legs and superior length.
Jones was the chip that tipped the scale in the Thunder's favor. He played 30 minutes Wednesday and covered LeBron James for the majority of the third quarter. Although James scored 12 points in the period, Jones' presence in the lineup allowed Serge Ibaka to slide from Shane Battier to a more natural matchup with Chris Bosh. It also allowed Kevin Durant to take a break from guarding James and focus more on providing necessary offense while avoiding costly foul trouble.