It's a mission the Thunder admits is impossible, but one Oklahoma City must take on anyway, that is, if the team has any hope of completing the championship quest that came up oh so short a year ago.
The task: stopping LeBron James.
Very few seem to have a solution to that 6-foot-8 inch problem these days and even fewer are equipped to actually step between the lines and try to solve it.
“He's one of the best players in the game's history,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “You can talk about why we don't do this and why we don't we do that. Well, we've done everything and the league does everything. That's what makes the greatest players great. They can do it against any defender, against any scheme.”
Just when it looked as if James, the Miami Heat star who powered his team through the Thunder and to the NBA title last June, couldn't get any better, he came back the best we've ever seen him. He's shooting 56.5 percent from the field and 42 percent from the 3-point line, both career highs. He's added a career- and team-high 8.1 rebounds to complement the other three statistical categories in which he paces the Heat: points, assists and steals.
And if you thought James was the Thunder's worst nightmare last June, wait until you see him now.
James enters the second and final regular season rematch of last year's NBA Finals sizzling, averaging 30.8 points on 71.7 percent shooting in the Heat's last six games, all of them wins. He's added 6.7 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.7 steals and one blocked shot per game over that same span.
“He's at a level that only a few players in this league have ever had,” Brooks said. “You can do a lot of good things and sound defensive principles against him and he still figures out ways to have an efficient game.”
James became the first player in NBA history to go six straight games with a 30-plus-point average while shooting at least 60 percent. He has improbably connected on 11 of 15.3 shot attempts per game over the past six games.
“They're not all dunks either,” Brooks said. “He definitely gets a lot of rim points. But you used to be able to give him the jump shot. You want your players to improve every year and he's improved every year. You think, ‘OK, he can't improve this year.' But it's been, what, 10 years now of improvement. And he's only 28.”
So how does the Thunder stop this freight train that's about to pull into Chesapeake Energy Arena with a head of steam?
“Superstars in this league, you can't stop,” said Kevin Durant. “You can't slow down, either. They were born to get a basket. They were born to do whatever they want on the floor. That's not just LeBron. There's a handful of guys that can do that. But you've got to stop them with your team.”
The Thunder has a team full of individual defenders to look to. Some are good options for James, others are iffy. But all seven — Durant, Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins, Perry Jones III and DeAndre Liggins — bring something that just might help sidetrack James.
“That's what makes us pretty good also is we can throw multiple defenders at different players,” Brooks said. “But with all our defenders, whoever's guarding him, we want the defender to be physical and play with toughness.”
Durant said the Thunder's help defense will be vital.
“You've got to make them see a crowd,” Durant said of guarding stars like James. “You've got to make them see a paint that's closed up. You've got to make them see hands. You don't just guard guys like that by yourself.”
Eliminate his scoring, though, and James becomes a passer. Take away his ball distribution and he rebounds. Keep him off the glass and he defends.
“There's so many skills that he brings to the team. But I think his biggest strength is that he plays for the team. Whatever the team needs that particular game, that particular moment, he's able to bring it,” Brooks said. “Not a lot of guys can do that on demand like he can. That's what makes him a candidate for league MVP for the next 10 years.”