This was what LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat needed, what Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the rest of the Oklahoma City Thunder wanted, and what David Stern and the rest of the league office were no doubt quietly thrilled to see. And it doesn’t matter that none of them would fully admit it after the Heat’s 98-94 heavyweight win over the Thunderat American Airlines Arena last night.
This was the kind of early April game so foreign to today’s NBA, an era marked by friendly opposing superstars and rules that starkly inhibit any hint of “extra” physical basketball. This was a throwback to pre – Malice at the Palace NBA, one the late 1990s Knicks and Heat, “Bad Boys”/”Jordan Rules” Pistons, and Kurt Rambis and Kevin McHale surely smiled while watching.
And it was all thanks to two fouls that Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks was convinced – well, that’s what he said at least – weren’t intentional, dirty, or even message-sending. In a span of 12 seconds midway through the second quarter, Kendrick Perkins followed through hard on Wade’s forehead drawing a technical foul, and Westbrook gave a no-chance chase to James before pulling him down mid-flight resulting in a flagrant 1.
You could see immediately after James awkwardly landed in a heap under the basket what he thought of Westbrook’s foul. Unconcerned with any potential injury, he promptly sprung to his feet and trudged headstrong and fire-breathing to halfcourt to avoid confrontation. For the mild-mannered James, this was as close to a proverbial push, shove, or more as he’s come all year, and it did to him what we all hoped it would once we realized he avoided injury – light a burning, not-for-the-cameras fire under he and his recently struggling team.
It was clear from then on that James wasn’t going to let Miami lose. He scored 11 points for the remainder of the half to give the Heat the lead as the second quarter buzzer sounded, relentlessly pressured Durant all game long into nine turnovers, and played the way we know an engaged, locked-in, motivated – even angry, perhaps? – LeBron can, to the tune of 34 points, seven rebounds, 10 assists, and four steals in leading his team to a win in the fourth quarter.
Of course, only James truly knows if it was the succeeding questionable fouls to “la familia” that ignited him, but the Thunder – surely we can agree – had a plan to test the Heat coming into this one. Not by trying to hurt Miami or playing dirty, but simply by buying into and living up to their developing identity as the league’s no nonsense, win at all costs tough guys.
The public’s perception of OKC as a small-town, basketball-obsessed group of young’ins is right. They love the game and they love getting better. But these aren’t the guys Durant’s off-court persona lends them to be. They push, they grab, they shove, they scowl, they taunt, they talk, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.
The Thunder, whether they or the league want you to know it or not, are basketball’s new enforcers. They maul you in the paint and claw you on the perimeter, and do it all with one of the league’s youngest, most talented, and brashly confident rosters. They’re the Anti-Heat in more ways than just their one-for-all mindset suggests, and they let Miami – and by proxy, the rest of the league – know it last night.
And the NBA world should be absolutely thrilled. A new conference-wide rivalry was finally born last night just as the Lakers and Celtics head for irrelevance, and Miami-Oklahoma City has all the players and plot-lines to be even better than that one.
James-Durant. Wade-Westbrook. Old-New. Hollywood-Homegrown. And, whether it applies one way, the other, or not at all, Good-Evil.