The Miami Heat held off Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder to win Game 2 and even the 2012 NBA Finals as the series heads to South Beach. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
We’ve spent much of the past two seasons dissecting how LeBron James is missing the “clutch” gene. How he rarely carries his team through the 4th quarter of a close game or makes the crucial shot to secure a victory similar to other superstars like, say, Kevin Durant. After the 4th quarter of Game 2 in the 2012 NBA Finals, I’m not convinced LeBron James isn’t a clutch player. I am, however, convinced he isn’t as smart as Kevin Durant.
Perhaps this whole time we’ve been looking at LeBron’s late game shortcomings from the wrong angle. Perhaps it’s not his athleticism and skill that abandon him in tight situations but his head.
Conversely, Durant has consistently made the right basketball plays in the later stages of big games, especially throughout the 2012 postseason. Durant’s brilliance was what made the Thunder unbeatable despite the San Antonio Spurs best efforts in Games 4, 5, and 6. The Spurs played to force Durant into mistakes or hurried/contested shots. When a teammate was open, Durant made the pass. When he had to score, he patiently broke down the defense and got his shot, not the shot the defense wanted.
LeBron hasn’t been so consistent. Yes, his laser to an open Chris Bosh for an easy dunk late in the 4th quarter was a thing of beauty. Though, it did come after LeBron had settled for an off-balance runner. LeBron also committed a costly turnover and in my opinion, was too content in letting teammates not named Dwyane Wade control the ball. More importantly, his in-game decisions suffered.
With Oklahoma City making a run in the final minutes, LeBron should have put his head down and attacked the rim with fury. He’s the most explosive athlete in the league. If the Thunder hoped to stop him at the rim, their efforts likely would have resulted in a foul or an open Heat teammate. Wade proved as much in the final minutes when he attacked the rim and found an open Bosh for an uncontested dunk after the Thunder defense collapsed to the ball.
Miami’s greatest asset in this series is Wade and LeBron relentlessly attacking the rim. Yet for whatever reason, with the Heat up only two with less than a minute to play, LeBron casually dribbled out the shot clock four feet beyond the three point line before taking an awful three that missed badly. Not even for a millisecond did LeBron threaten to attack. He gave the Thunder a get-out-of-jail free card and it nearly cost the Heat the game. Did LeBron miss that shot because he’s not clutch? No. He missed it because it was an impossible shot. His talent didn’t fail him there. His brain did.
So why is it that Durant is smarter in crunch time situations? The answer: Persona. LeBron craves attention and being a “brand.” Durant craves winning and getting better at his craft. I have no proof of this, but I’d bet money Durant studies basketball year round. He can’t get enough of it. You can see it in the way he carries himself on the court and the way he speaks about the game off it. Durant wants to learn. He wants to get better. He wants to understand the game and all its intricacies. Most importantly, he wants to win. And not because winning means money and fame, but because winning means you’re the best.
For LeBron, basketball is less of a passion and more a means to an end. LeBron wants Jordan’s fame and status. He wants to be the best ever, and not because of a burning desire to be the best, but for the attention and idolization that comes with it. LeBron is an entertainer that happens to be the world’s premiere basketball player. Durant is a humbled man driven to be the best and win at any cost. Critical game situations don’t scare Durant because failure doesn’t scare him. Failure is simply another motivator. For LeBron, failure tarnishes his legacy and his brand. A brand Kevin Durant passed up for winning. And really, when it’s all said and done, is there a better brand than winning?