Just past the halfway point of the fourth quarter of the Miami Heat's Thursday night visit to Chesapeake Energy Arena to take on the Oklahoma City Thunder, LeBron James beat Serge Ibaka off the dribble, went up high ... and came down hard.
James faced up on Ibaka on the left wing above the 3-point line and dribbled briefly to his left before making a beeline to the basket with a right-hand dribble. Just-returned Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook sunk in off Dwyane Wade to offer help, but James wasn't deterred by his half-hearted reach on his way to the rim; he elevated, matched stride for stride by Ibaka, and threw down (literally) a huge finish. He then promptly hit the deck along the baseline and stayed down in a fashion we're not familiar to seeing from the four-time NBA Most Valuable Player; as TNT's cameras zoomed in on the fallen King, we saw that he was leakin'.
Another look at the replay showed that Ibaka whacked James with his left hand as LeBron drove past him at the foul line. Amazingly, no foul was called on the play; perhaps as, or more, amazingly, James proceeded through the contact, went up off one foot, warded off one of the game's best shot-blockers, got even higher in the air and finished before going down in a heap. That's a pretty strong, focused and tough dude, right there.
After the Heat regained possession off a turnover by Thunder star Kevin Durant — again, there had been no foul call on the play — Miami called timeout and the training staff, Heat coaches and James' teammates descended on the two-time NBA Finals MVP. He was helped back to the locker room with a towel over his face to staunch the bleeding; he would not return, finishing the night with 33 points on 15 for 22 shooting, seven rebounds, four steals, three assists and eight turnovers in 33 1/2 minutes to lead Miami to an impressive 103-81 road win that evens up their season series with the West-leading Thunder at one game apiece.
James came out on fire from the opening tip, seeming motivated to make the Thunder pay for punking the Heat in Miami during a nationally televised contest before the All-Star break. He scored Miami's first 12 points, in less than 5 1/2 minutes of game time, before counterpart Durant had even managed a field-goal attempt. (The Thunder star had, however, managed two turnovers.) James pressured Oklahoma City's defense early and often, finishing the first frame with 16 points on 8 for 10 shooting with a pair of assists and steals en route to pacing Miami to a 17-point lead after 12 minutes.
Oklahoma City fought back in the second behind the relentless attacking of Westbrook, who looked rusty but not reined-in after spending eight weeks on the shelf following right knee surgery, and scored nine points in 7 1/2 second-quarter minutes to help cut the Thunder deficit to seven at halftime. Strong starts to the second half by James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, however, expanded the lead to 19 four minutes into the third quarter, and OKC trailed by double figures for the rest of the game ... a game James would finish in the locker room.
There's good news for Heat fans, though: Despite James bleeding actual blood for the first time anyone seems to be able to remember, and seeming unsteady as he regained his feet and headed back to the locker room, things could be worse:
LeBron passed a concussion test. Will take an x-ray.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) February 21, 2014
If James is free and clear of concussion symptoms — and I mean really clear, not ill-conceived-notions-of-masculinity cleared — then maybe the worst thing to come out of this would be a broken nose and, perhaps, a mask to protect it. That wouldn't be a first for James, who got his Rip Hamilton on back in 2004, after suffering a broken cheekbone (thanks, Dikembe!) while a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. James briefly wore a mask while the bone healed and, while he experienced discomfort, still managed to get fairly heroic in the process.
James did not speak to reporters in the Heat locker room after the game, reportedly sitting at his locker with a towel over his head. He'll be evaluated once the team returns to Miami, according tohead coach Erik Spoelstra. Miami is off until Sunday, when they're set to take on the bruising Chicago Bulls in a Sunday afternoon matinee.
Wade finished with 24 points on 11 for 17 shooting, 10 assists, seven rebounds, three steals and some attentive, disruptive defense in 36 1/2 minutes, in what might have been his best two-way performance of the season. Bosh, too, scored 24 points on 6 for 9 shooting and 11 for 12 from the charity stripe to go with eight boards, three assists, three steals and a block for the Heat, who have now won four straight, seven of eight and 12 of 15 to improve to 39-14. They now sit 1 1/2 games behind the Indiana Pacers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Durant finished with a Thunder-high 28 points on 10 for 22 shooting, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals, but went just 1 for 6 from 3-point land, missed three free throws and committed five turnovers. (It is probably instructive that this seems like a pretty bad game for him.) Westbrook added 16 points, but needed 12 shots to get there, and undercut his five boards and two assists with four turnovers in his return game, as Oklahoma City shot just 37.8 percent from the field and committed 20 turnovers that led to 27 Heat points in the loss, their first at home since Jan. 2.