Photo Credit: Birger Hoppe via Flickr
I’ve been second my whole life. I was the second best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I’ve been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the finals. I’m tired of being second.
— Kevin Durant to Lee Jenkins/Sports Illustrated.
It’s no secret. This season hasn’t made our collective eyes pop. A slew of injuries took some of the NBA’s most prodigious acts out of the equation—Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook are just the headliners. Of the 16 teams currently slotted for the playoffs, half have seen major portions of their season defined by injuries.
With no all-encompassing narrative, no 27-game winning streaks, no villains to concoct new heroes, the NBA, as all things with a circadian rhythm are wont to do, fell into a rut. Late January, most teams suiting up for game 45 of 82; doldrums are an expectation— maybe it’s the stark contrast to last season, they just feel a little more pronounced.
Then Kevin Durant happened. Russell Westbrook succumbed to injury and Kevin Durant’s game log happened. 54 points happened. Durant started doing things with the basketball that were once believed inconceivable for him; he’s been a blood-curling killer since the womb but even basketball cognoscenti couldn’t sense the proclivity for dominance beyond scoring. You get the feeling the basketball gods have a penchant for irony: Injuries made this season a shell of itself yet, it was one of the most devastating wounds that opened a pandora’s box of untethered talent.
LeBron James, the conceivable No. 1 of the aforementioned quote, and the Miami Heat felt a heavy brunt of that talent tonight. Durant scored 33 points, he eviscerated the Heat’s double teams with meticulously crafted passes. It was raining threes against Miami. And look, the Heat are no strangers to midseason cruising— or cruising at any point in the regular season. We’ve all heard the empty arena jokes, too. But have you ever heard a pin drop in Miami? KD matched LeBron shot for shot and at the risk of sounding trite, he sucked the life out of the arena. The crowd was stunned. I was stunned.
Durant can’t stake his true claim until the playoffs but surely, he made his first mark. The NBA hasn’t been this close to two players being 1a and 1b since Kobe and LeBron did puppet commercials together. I’m almost tempted to create a “There Can Only Be One” caption with half of LeBron and Durant’s faces on it. The game wasn’t close; the Thunder’s shooting and Miami’s turnovers never really allowed for that. But I was left with the cautiously optimistic feeling that this game fuelled a fire that might salvage the season. Durant is in wild pursuit of greatness; once knocking at the door, he’s choosing simply to barge in. And fans have all but engraved Durant’s name on the 2013-2014 MVP trophy. He didn’t arrive a moment too soon.
And if a Bird vs. Magic comparison feels cliche, it’s only because it’s so fitting. The NBA is a motley of personalities but LeBron and KD create polarizing factions: A wing-sized ball handler who can play any position, concoct any pass and when it suits him, score with the best of them against a small forward who, by pure exercise of will, scores from anywhere on the court with such apparent dominance and indifference that he’s been dubbed the Slim Reaper. The two are good friends. Yet bitter enemies. In their unique ways, cold-blooded killers.
Truly—it’s a shame that, like the sun and the moon, their paths only align twice a year.