|ESPN.com: NBA All-Star 2012||[Print without images]|
ORLANDO, Fla. -- It started as the L.A. guys against the Miami and Boston guys, and to an extent it ended that way too -- with Kobe Bryant trash-talking Paul Pierce at one end and telling LeBron James to shoot the ball at the other during the West's 152-149 win over the East.
But for most of the time in between, the story was the Miami Heat against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and in particular James against Kevin Durant. The two small forwards -- unquestionably the two best small forwards in the game, and quite possibly the winner and runner-up in this season's MVP voting -- fittingly tied for a game-high 36 points on Sunday night, which was only decided when James turned the ball over with a chance to tie in the final seconds.
Both players also got huge efforts from their All-Star sidekicks. Miami's Dwyane Wade had a triple-double that included 24 points, while Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook contributed 21 points and five offensive boards.
And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to start thinking about these guys matching up in June. With the Thunder and Heat holding identical -- and league-best -- 27-7 records at the break, the two teams appear to be on a collision course, as much as the protagonists want to talk it down.
"You're taking it down the line, man," Durant said. "It's too early for that. We're trying to take it a game at a time, a day at a time."
Yes, there are numerous scenarios that could upend this; folks in Chicago and San Antonio in particular will note that their local basketball collectives are more than capable of making the NBA Finals. And that wouldn't be the first time it has happened; witness the much-anticipated Kobe vs. LeBron Finals of the past three years that never came to fruition.
The other interesting angle of a LeBron vs. Durant showdown, of course, is that neither has completely sold the national audience on their ability to deliver in crunch time, and we saw that again Sunday.
James's turnover in the final seconds, when he threw a cross-court pass rather than attack for a shot of his own, won't quiet those critics even if this was just an All-Star Game. Until that point he almost single-handedly brought the East back after they rallied from as much as 21; they were still down 15 when he checked in with seven minutes left and started raining.
As for Durant, he had only two points in the final stanza and one particularly terrible turnover that Deron Williams converted into a layup to make it a one-possession game with 1:38 left. After three quarters he had 34 points and seemed he might break Wilt Chamberlain's record of 42, but got only two shots away in the final eight minutes.
Nonetheless, this game as a whole was a bit of a coming-out party for the Oklahoma City gang, including coach Scott Brooks; its side won the game, its guy got the MVP award, and it leaves here able to claim, more realistically than ever, that it's on equal footing with Miami and anybody else in the league.
"That's what we try to do," Westbrook said. "Wherever we go, put our OKC stamp on something. Everybody doesn't get to make it out to OKC so you gotta show them something."
Westbrook certainly did, while offering a tantalizing slice of how the Thunder might look with him playing off the ball -- he lined up at shooting guard for much of the night, throwing down several electric finishes. Most notable was a flying one-handed jam down the lane with two minutes left to put the West up by five -- one that was arguably the single-best dunk of the evening.
Westbrook seemed pretty amped in general, screaming after nearly every made basket and playfully shooting and holstering guns toward Durant after a 3-pointer. And he and Wade will have a huge impact on whatever happens both between now and June, and in any NBA Finals meeting between the two.
Nonetheless, it's LeBron vs. KD that tantalizes as both a contrast in styles and a match-up of supreme talents. The (arguably) two best players, on (arguably) the two best teams, lined up across from each other in a battle of South Beach vs. Main Street. Sunday's battle left us hungry for more, but only time will tell if we get it.