OKLAHOMA CITY - If this indeed was a duel between MVP LeBron James and scoring champion Kevin Durant as the two friends vie for their first NBA title, then Durant won this first clash rather easily.
While James again led the Miami Heat in scoring and in flashes displayed why he won the league’s MVP award for a third time, Durant produced when it mattered most: the fourth quarter. He scored 17 of his game-high 36 points in the final period as the Oklahoma City Thunder did what the Celtics couldn’t in Game 7 against the Heat, hit shots down the stretch for a 105-94 win in Game 1 of the NBA Finals Tuesday night.
Game 2 is Thursday at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Durant was the driving force behind Oklahoma City’s fourth-quarter run, scoring on an array of shots while Russell Westbrook canned a pull-up jumper for a 93-83 lead with 3:35 left. The Thunder prevailed much like they have all postseason, falling behind early but staying close enough to strike. And when the Heat began to tire and become stagnant offensively in the third quarter, Oklahoma City seized the opportunity.
Durant was stymied by Shane Battier for the second and third quarters, but he completely outplayed James in the fourth, scoring 10 points in the first 7:18 of the period as the Thunder extended a 1-point lead to 8 with 4:42 left.
The three-time scoring champion conducted a mid-range shooting clinic and when Battier got into his jersey, he simply used his length to drive around him for finger-roll layups. While the Celtics were too tired to run with the Heat late in games, the Thunder relished the opportunity, with Westbrook pushing the ball on every possession.
Meanwhile, the same issues that plagued Miami throughout the postseason returned in the fourth, only this time James couldn’t rescue his teammates. He scored 30 points with 9 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 steals but scored 7 points on just 2-for-6 shooting in the final period, which has become a bugaboo throughout his career.
“I don’t think we made many mistakes in the fourth quarter, it’s just they made more plays, especially offensively,’’ James said. “They made more shots. Russell made some big-time shots, [Durant] made some big-time shots. Those two guys are All-Stars for a reason. You can’t stop them, you just try to limit them.’’
The Thunder shot 57.1 percent in the fourth quarter, taking advantage of a Heat team that played primarily six players.
“Well those guys, they came out on fire,’’ Durant said of the Heat. “They were passing the ball well, knocking down shots. We just wanted to continue to keep playing. It’s a long game, and every time our coach was just [saying] play harder, play harder, and that’s what we did. I’m not trying to force anything. For this whole playoffs, I’m just trying to play my game, be aggressive.’’
After spending nearly three quarters chasing the Heat, the Thunder took their first lead on a conventional Westbrook 3-point play with 16.4 seconds left in the period. Westbrook (27 points) was the catalyst of the run, scoring 12 points in the quarter while the Miami defense bottled up Durant.
Meanwhile, the Heat made just 6 of 18 shots in the third quarter, including a 1-for-6 effort by Dwyane Wade. James scored 9 points in the period but was passive in key stretches. He gave the Heat a 71-66 lead with a one-handed tomahawk dunk at the 2:35 mark but that was Miami’s final field goal of the period.
Westbrook answered with a layup and Durant cut the Heat lead to 2. Westbrook ended the quarter with a sprawling layup and free throw to put the Thunder ahead.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra used eight players, but just six played most of the minutes. He said “circumstances’’ caused him to use a short lineup but he promised that would change for Game 2. James Jones, Ronny Turiaf and Norris Cole did not play in Game 1.
“I thought coming out [in] the third quarter they did a great job of turning up the defensive pressure to get right back in it,’’ said Wade, who scored 19 points on 7-of-19 shooting. “From that point, it was pretty much a one-possession kind of a game. They just made more plays than us. They got a couple of open shots and from that point, we were kind of playing behind.’’
After a skittish start, Oklahoma City was steadier in the second quarter. Westbrook continuously attacked the basket while Serge Ibaka used his athleticism to slice to the hoop, beating the Miami bigs. But each time the Thunder made a run, the Heat responded. James paced an 8-0 run with 6 points, including a crowd-silencing steal of a Durant pass and dunk for a 37-24 lead.
James later countered with a jumper for an 11-point Miami lead but the Thunder scored the final 4 points of the half and carried that momentum into the third quarter. As poorly as they played in first-half stretches, the Thunder trailed only 54-47 while Durant was passive after the first quarter and Westbrook missed 7 of 10 shots.
But by midway through the fourth quarter, Oklahoma City grabbed all the momentum and Durant showed why he is one of the game’s premier players.
“We come out with a lot of energy, try to steal Game 1 and now we get an opportunity to go to the chalkboard, go to the film and have a better plan for Game 2,’’ James said.