— OKLAHOMA CITY - There is something to be said about taking the ultimate challenge in the ultimate moments.
Tuesday, in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, those moments belonged to Kevin Durant, not so much for his 36 overall points, the highest-scoring Finals debut this side of Allen Iverson, but also for the 17 he scored in the fourth quarter, the highest-scoring fourth quarter against the Miami Heat this season.
But it was about more than just the offense from the NBA's most gifted scorer in the Oklahoma City Thunder's 105-94 series-opening victory.
And it was about more than the finish.
It also was about the start.
And about defense.
Because there, at the outset, was Durant taking the challenge against LeBron James, helping limit him to a 1-of-5 shooting start from the field.
Not Thabo Sefolosha. Not some sort of surrogate defender. But the player who can't possibly get enough credit for his offense, also taking considerable pride in his long-limbed defense.
Yet when the Heat retreated on defense for the first time, James retreated deep into the paint, not to defend Durant, but rather to bide his time against Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, who, by his standards, had a solid offensive night with four points.
It was just a day earlier when Heat teammate Dwyane Wade said one of the best things about the James-Durant matchup was that it would keep James engaged, that he'd have to lift his defensive focus against Durant, with that focus easily transferrable to the offensive end. Wade went on to say that some of James' offensive struggles in last season's Finals against Dallas came from a lack of an early series defensive challenge from DeShawn Stevenson.
And yet here, at what stands as a career-defining moment of truth, James is biding his time against Kendrick Perkins?
"It wasn't my choice," James said afterward of opening on Perkins instead of Durant. "It was a suggestion that Spo [coach Erik Spoelstra] brought up, and I thought it was good early on for us. It gave us an opportunity to switch a lot of pick-and-rolls when Perk went down and did a screen for K.D. and I was able to switch off for him."
The player who finished fourth in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year, the highest-ranking perimeter player in that tabulation, deferred the primary defensive challenge on Durant to Shane Battier, willingly agreeing to play as a secondary defender.
It was, in fact, Durant who kept the Thunder afloat early, until Russell Westbrook could warm up and help him finish it off.
By contrast, Durant was there for the entire LeBron challenge. And while James did close with 30 points, eclipsing his previous Finals career best of 25, it came on 11-of-24 shooting, with much of it coming early.
"K.D. is a terrific player, and we all know how well he is as a scorer. He's led the league three years in a row in scoring," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "But he's a special player because he defends."
So he defended. He defended LeBron at the start. He defended LeBron at the finish.
And then he defended LeBron as a defender.
"He's such a versatile defender, he can guard one through five, and we used Perk in a lot of screen-setting, and they switched a lot off it, and he guarded Russ, he guarded me, he guarded one through five," Durant said of James' defensive versatility. "You know, I'm not worried about that. Like I said, the one-on-one matchup, it's just about the team, and he does such a great job of guarding everybody."
But with the Thunder there isn't "everybody."
There is Durant and then everybody else, because even when Westbrook is on, he's shooting 10-of-24 like he did Tuesday.
And while Battier is erstwhile with his defensive effort, he's not LeBron. He's not who this series or this Heat team is about.
James, of course, put the onus on Spoelstra, even though the legend of LeBron is of telling his coaches who he is defending, and when. He has earned that I've-got-him right.
And that brings up the rest of Tuesday's failing, namely that James played all but 2 minutes, 10 seconds just three nights after a near complete game against the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
To a degree, that was why Spoelstra kept James off Durant defensively at the start. So he could be there to score at the finish.
Instead, the Heat were outscored 58-40 in the second half, exposed to the lightning the Thunder used in their blitzes of the San Antonio Spurs in the West finals.
James put that burden on his coach, as well.
"You know, we know we have to have more production for sure," he said, even though the Heat had three other double-digit scorers, one more than Durant found in support. "We're going to have to have more guys in there to give me and D-Wade a rest. And Shane, Shane played a lot of minutes. But Spo will figure that out."
Of course Tuesday, Spoelstra's instinct was to keep James away from Durant at the start, attempt to defensively hide the player who casts a larger shadow over this series than any other.
But even after just one game, the Heat have come to recognize that there is one man in this series who single-handedly can add to the misery of last season's Finals failure against Dallas.
Thursday, that means putting James face-to-face with Durant.
And on more than just one side of the court.