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"There are things a closer does other than score," says Heat forward Udonis Haslem. Durant scored more in the clutch than anybody this season, but according to NBA.com, James delivered more assists, snagged more rebounds and had a higher efficiency rating. James typically handles the ball at closing time, driving into the lane, where he can absorb contact or kick to an open shooter. Durant races around pin-down screens and stops at the top of the key, where he can catch and shoot, or free himself with one dribble. In the playoffs no one has as many points on jumpers as Durant, and no one has shot as high a percentage (56.5%) on pull-ups.
After a practice at American Airlines Arena last Saturday, James was walking to the locker room when Durant caught his eye. They didn't say a word, just slapped hands and exchanged knowing half-smiles. James then reflected on his mentality as a closer: simultaneously engaged and removed. "I'm trying to get to a place where it's quiet, where I can clear my head and be completely relaxed," he said. Even for the two best players in the world, that place has been difficult to find.
Durant spent one season at Texas, and early on, he didn't want to close. Teammates pleaded, "KD, you've got to take over." In December 2006 the Longhorns led Tennessee by eight points late in the second half, and Durant unleashed a three-pointer with 19 seconds left on the shot clock. He missed, then missed a layup, then another. After Texas fell in overtime, coach Rick Barnes told Durant, "You just cost us the game." Durant nodded. "I know," he said. When Durant returned from Christmas break, he told Barnes, "I want to learn everything I can." They worked specifically on clock management and late-game situations. In the Big 12 tournament Durant missed his first 12 shots against Baylor, then erupted for 24 points in the second half and obliterated a 20-point deficit. "He gets this look in his eye," Barnes says, "like he's in his own world."
After the Sonics hired Sam Presti to be their G.M. in 2007, a year before the team moved to Oklahoma City, he drafted Durant with the No. 2 pick and traded veteran sharpshooter Ray Allen to Boston. Presti wanted Durant to take the reps as the closer. In Durant's 10th game he beat Atlanta in double overtime with a three-pointer at the buzzer, then celebrated by skipping across the court and pounding his chest. The play was memorable because it was so rare. Durant lost 91 of his first 114 games, in part because he could not close. As recently as November 2009, against the Lakers, he tossed an air ball late in regulation and another in overtime.
"But you could never tell if we won or lost," Thunder coach Scott Brooks recalls. "He'd always be back at our facility the next day at 9:15." Durant was as slender as a flagstick and almost as flimsy, 215 pounds at the combine and unable to bench-press 185. He was most effective inside the arc, but defenses would not let him get there. "They'd grab him, push him, bully him," says OKC forward Nick Collison. "He had to post up around half-court."
On an off day in Phoenix in 2009, the Thunder and the Cavaliers overlapped before games against the Suns, and Durant spotted James in the weight room at US Airways Center. Watching James lift, Durant was inspired to do the same, and now he weighs 235 pounds. He is not going to win any bodybuilding contests, but he can hold his position when he has to.
In the fourth game of this season, Durant made a three at the buzzer to beat the Mavericks and did not pound his chest once. In the playoffs he drained a game-winner against Dallas, two against the Lakers, and scored 16 consecutive points in the fourth quarter against the Spurs. "Sometimes it's nerve-racking," Durant says. "I just try to calm down and go with my instincts." He is currently the league's marquee closer, but if he glances across the court, he will see how fleeting that title can be.
James was 22, a year younger than Durant is now, when he closed out Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals with a stunning flourish. He scored 25 straight points in Detroit, against the stingiest defense in the East. When he returned to the conference finals two years later, he hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to beat the Magic.
But as pressure mounted on James to win his first championship, he retreated in the clutch. In 2010 he made only three shots in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Celtics and then fled to Miami, where he reached the Finals last season but vanished in fourth quarters. "He was thinking too much," said Heat guard Dwyane Wade. In an April 2011 SI poll asking 166 NBA players whom they'd want to take a last-second shot, 74% chose Bryant, with Durant the runner-up. James didn't receive a vote.
"For me, it's all about aggression," James says. In the first three games of the Finals against Oklahoma City, he attempted 69 shots, and 44 of them were within nine feet of the basket. He took 29 free throws, more than in the entire series last year against Dallas, and he made 25. His driving bank at the end of Game 2 was the first shot he's ever made on the road in the Finals in a clutch situation. He added two more at home in Game 3 while Durant repeatedly misfired, another step in the evolution. "I'm going to shoot until my arm falls off in the fourth," Durant said. "That's what I do. I don't care if I miss it or if I make it. I believe in myself."