Photo: Flickr/Michelle Ramos
From day one, it’s been evident that Kevin Durant is really gifted. By really I mean, unfairly-stupidly-ridiculously-damn-gifted. Because of his apparent abilities, and even his personality, the basketball viewing public largely wanted to give him the world from the get-go. While the numbers and accolades piled up and the audience’s anticipation grew, we were ready for it to become Durant’s time. After all, the title of World’s Greatest Player still belonged to LeBron James, narratives be damned. As James racked up MVPs and hardware, we all collectively wondered when the time would come for Durant to officially enter the league’s best player conversation.
He quickly ascended up the list of the league’s best scorers before he was barely old enough to legally order a beer. He was an All-Star in his second season and an MVP candidate. He earned a Finals appearance before long. Yet until this point, Durant had always been a clear second to James: MVP runner-up, losing to James’ Heat in the Finals and so on. Last summer, Durant’s patience with this whole “becoming a legend” process had seemed to be wearing thin, and the Thunder star publicly voiced his displeasure with being second-best. I mean, how many times is threatening a 50-40-90 season and playing on a contender not enough to get you an MVP? His frustration was difficult not to sympathize with.
At the same time, James needed Durant to take that step. The two may be friends and offseason training partners, but they are competitors first. James has spent the last few years solidifying his throne, but it became apparent that, as some speculated about Michael Jordan in the early nineties, he had essentially become bored with his own brilliance without a true challenger for his title. Going back through the decades, we can always recall the battles between the league’s best of that time from Wilt-Russell, to Magic-Bird, and Jordan to…well, you see what I’m getting at. Just as Jordan, and even post-Shaq Kobe Bryant realized, it’s difficult to sustain that high-level constantly without anyone truly on your tail. In the same way the greats of yesterday would check the box scores of their rivals the morning after, James has admitted to getting alerts on his phone of Durant’s performances.
Really, this is a role that Durant had begun to prepare for last spring after Russell Westbrook went down. For the first time in his NBA career, Durant was facing the battle of having to do everything on his own and it proved to be challenging, even for a scoring savant such as himself. This was a team that had been primed for yet another back-to-back Finals appearance and had to shoulder the burden of those dashed hopes on his own shoulders. Comparing and contrasting Durant’s ability to adapt to opponents honing in on him without Westbrook from last spring to this winter and it’s clear he has learned from arguably the greatest trial of his career.
Fast forward to this season, and Durant continued his stellar production over the first 32 games with averages of 28.6 points per game and 4.8 assists per game on just below 50% shooting. His numbers were impressive, but then Durant has caught fire over the past 13 games. Durant has asserted his dominance, averaging a dizzying 37.8 points per game after five 40-plus point performances. Not only has he been efficient at 53.7 percent from the field, but his 6.2 assists per game show a player that is looking to bring everyone up to his level. Most significantly, in the grand scheme of things, Durant has re-sparked the debate over the best player in the game in an injury-plagued season— one some have found disappointing.
As the debate turned to LeBron or Durant, the calendar turned to January 29th and the night of the Heat-Thunder matchup. Arguably the two most physically gifted and skilled players were going to be going head-to-head at the peaks of their games and we were fortunate enough to be spectators. Would tonight tell us anything about who was better than who? Probably not. Would it make for great basketball either way? Oh yes.
The old saying is that nothing ever lives up to its hype is usually true. Except when it’s not, and Wednesday night was no exception. Not only did the two friends square off, but they finished with nearly identical lines:
Kevin Durant: 33 points, seven rebounds and five assists on 12-23 shooting.
LeBron James: 34 points, three rebounds and three assists on 12-20 shooting.
It’s one thing when people bemoan the overhyping of storylines, especially for an NBA game in January, but it’s another when the main event lives up to its billing as Wednesday night’s did. To those looking to use the game as an indicator of who was better, they were left with very little evidence either way. And for those of us looking to see if this could truly be the preeminent matchup of this this era saw some indicators that reaffirm that belief.
There may be a chance that I’m overreacting to 14 games in the middle of the season and it maybe doesn’t mean that much. However, considering the implications of what we have seen during this stretch from Durant, it’s not something to take lightly. It has to mean something; what exactly, I don’t know, but something. This is the way it reads: league’s brightest young star takes the next step to reawaken the league’s reigning best player who had been accused of coasting after years of dominance in a season many had been disappointed in. We had seen them clash before on the league’s biggest stage, but then it was apparent it just was not Durant’s time yet. Now, it appears that now may be the time, and if Wednesday night was any indication, LeBron James isn’t just going to relinquish his yet. One thing is clear from last night’s game: when James and Durant go head-to-head, we all win.