- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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So exactly where does the task of slowing Durant rank in James' pregame pecking order?
"It's not secondary," James quipped Tuesday. "It’s first-dary."
The Heat's defense might have to be as creative as James' vocabulary when it comes to the challenge of containing the NBA's leading scorer, who is bringing the league's hottest team into AmericanAirlines Arena for what could shape up as a potential preview of the Finals in June.
James has been one of the biggest admirers of the dynamic surge Durant has been on in recent weeks. Having bolted to the forefront of the league MVP race, Durant has averaged 36.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 6.1 assists while shooting 54 percent from the field in January. So far, the month has been highlighted by Durant’s career-high 54-point game in a Jan. 17 win against Golden State.
But the OKC superstar also has had scoring outbursts of 41, 46, 48 and 48 points, and has dropped in at least 30 in 11 consecutive games for the Thunder, who have won eight in a row and are 11-4 in January. James, a four-time MVP, has said he has been notified by friends and relatives of Durant's exploits after each game. Now, he's looking forward to the assignment of defending his basketball buddy and rival.
"Between he and Melo, they’re the toughest covers for me," James said of defending Durant and Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, whom James will face Friday in New York. "It's a game [within] the game. You want to win. But you also want to try to do your part against who you're going against. I like going against the best, and he's definitely right up in there."
James has enjoyed plenty of individual and team success against Durant and the Thunder in his four seasons with the Heat. Durant has finished second to James in three of the four MVP races James has won, and the Heat also defeated the Thunder in five games to win the championship in 2012. Durant has repeatedly said he has grown tired of finishing second in his career.
In addition to losing out to James in the Finals and the MVP ballots, Durant also was drafted second overall in 2007 behind recently acquired Heat center Greg Oden, who was taken No. 1 that year by the Portland Trail Blazers.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has tried to address the team's recent defensive lapses that were apparent during Miami's 5-5 start after the New Year. Durant, who has led OKC in the injury absence of All-Star Russell Westbrook, is the kind of singular force that will have Miami's full attention.
"He's an elite competitor, and that's what you respect most about him," Spoelstra said. "Obviously you see the video-game numbers he's putting up. So what he's doing right now is notable because they could have come up with a lot of excuses why they couldn’t compete in that Western Conference at the level they are. But he's raised his game and has pulled their team right along with him."
James knows he won't be alone in trying to stall Durant, and mentioned that he would rely on a lot of help from defenders behind him within the Heat's team defense concepts. Still, James, who has finished second in defensive player of the year voting, understands the job will be a handful.
"Even in his short career, he's one of the greatest scorers to ever play the game," James said of Durant. "It's very [impressive], but not surprising. He can make his free throws, he can make 3-pointers, he can make pull-ups, he can get to the rim in transition. He gets a little bit of everything."
Heat guard Dwyane Wade insists his previous game coming off the bench as a reserve was only a cameo appearance. Wade practiced in his normal role Tuesday and expects to be back in the starting lineup for Wednesday’s game against the Thunder.
Wade was essentially the Heat's sixth man during Sunday's victory against San Antonio, which was his first game back after missing the previous four for rest and treatment on his sore right knee. Veteran sharpshooter Ray Allen started at shooting guard Sunday for Wade, who had eight points in 24 minutes.
Wade again stressed Tuesday that the combination of Sunday's 1 p.m. start and the fact that Miami had won their previous two games with Allen as the starter, convinced him to suggest to Spoelstra and the team that he would be best suited coming off the bench in that specific situation.
There are no plans for Wade to shift to a regular reserve role anytime soon.
"I asked Coach to do that, but I didn’t ask him to take me out of the starting lineup for the whole year," said Wade, who has missed 13 games this season. "We can quit that conversation right now. It was just something I did that game, and I will get back to my role with this team [Wednesday]."
After spending the bulk of the week back in Miami resting and having resumed his regular treatment and therapy regimen, Wade said his knees feel better but that it remains a day-by-day process. He said he hasn't thought about any potential long-term remedies for his soreness such as surgery, and that he will remain focused on getting through the season as healthy as possible.
"It's more of a read of how my body feels and my conditioning feels as the games go on," Wade said. "I’m just focused on now. Long term, I can’t think about it. I'm just going to continue to focus on today and just try to do the best I can with what I've been given. That's what I'll always do.”
Spoelstra said everyone for the Heat did some work in Tuesday’s practice and is expected to be available for Wednesday’s game, including Wade (knee) and Oden (knee). OKC will be without Westbrook (knee).
Did You Know?
The Heat will attempt to sweep their four-game homestand with a win Wednesday against Oklahoma City. Miami has not trailed at any point in either of their previous two games. Including the Boston game that opened the homestand last Tuesday, the Heat have only trailed a total of 2 minutes, 24 seconds.
Quote Of The Day:
"The more I find out about basketball, the more it’s about not being confined to a box. As much as I’ve never wanted to be at that [center] position, we’ve had a lot of success with it.”
– Chris Bosh, on his productive stretch in which he’s averaged 23.7 points and shot 73.8 percent over the past three games.
LeBron's Take:For LeBron James, there is no confusion in terms of how his priorities are set entering Wednesday's marquee showdown against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder.