Thunder: LeBron James 'smells fear,' but Deonte Burton excelled in surprise defensive matchup
LOS ANGELES — The Thunder had no long-term answer for LeBron James, much less Anthony Davis, his new superstar sidekick. Few teams do.
But for a six-minute, fourth-quarter stretch in the Thunder’s 112-107 Tuesday night loss to the Lakers, Deonte Burton was OKC’s unexpected solution for slowing James.
Burton, the second-year undrafted guard from Iowa State, checked in with 9:41 left in the game.
He immediately forced James into a 17-foot fadeaway that caromed off the backboard and barely grazed the rim. A minute later he bullied through a screen and, along with Nerlens Noel, trapped James into a turnover. James sized up Burton eight seconds later, but Burton stayed disciplined in his stance as James missed a 16-footer. Then came another James missed fadeaway jumper from 12 feet with Burton closely contesting him.
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Burton had clearly frustrated the four-time MVP. James heaved a 3-pointer two minutes later, trying to bait Burton into a foul with a rip move. There was no whistle. The shot missed everything.
James was 1-of-5 with a turnover in the fourth quarter with Burton on the floor. The Lakers star was 9-of-16 otherwise as he recorded a triple-double with 25 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. James became the first player in NBA history to record a triple-double against all 30 teams.
“Bron is a tough cover for anybody, but he’s one of them guys, if he smells fear, it’s over for you,” Thunder point guard Chris Paul said. “I think DB just accepted the challenge.”
Terrance Ferguson drew the initial assignment on James, a night after he defended Paul George and Lou Williams. While James piled up points in transition, Ferguson contained him in Los Angeles’ half-court sets. James didn’t make a jump shot in the first half.
“We just wanted to put a bigger body on him,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of matching Burton on James in the fourth quarter.
The Thunder lacks big-bodied wings with George no longer on the roster. Ferguson is listed at 6-foot-7 and 190 pounds — 60 pounds lighter than James. Burton is only 6-foot-5, but his 240-pound frame is a more even match for James.
“I don’t want to look at him and just say, ‘Listen, when we’re playing against big, strong, physical wing players that’s the only role for Deonte,’” Donovan said. “Because I think he can do more than that.”
Tuesday night was Burton’s first time facing James, who was inactive in all three of the Lakers’ games last year against the Thunder.
Burton has only played in half of the Thunder’s games this season, but he showed at Staples Center that he can be useful as a defensive wild card. His next chance at guarding James will come at 7 p.m. Friday when the Thunder hosts the Lakers.
There’s no mystery for what to expect.
“We’re gonna get a steady dose of AD and a steady dose of LeBron all night long,” Paul said.