MIAMI – Fans have it easy. The schedule comes out and with it, the red pens or black markers or yellow highlighters. A few circles, underlines and exclamation points later, it’s posted on the wall, loaded into the phone, set up on the tablet with the proper alerts. The best of the best? Plain to see, week by week, games and matchups stretching out over six months.
But if you’re LeBron James, the big games and key clashes – the real highlights – are harder to come by. In an NBA sense, if anyone in recent memory had a right to go all Alexander the Great on us and weep because there were no more worlds to conquer, it’s been James. Two-time NBA champion, four-time Most Valuable Player, SI Sportsman of the Year, renewed likability, restored marketability and on and on.
While fans and even other NBA players make mental and physical note of their (and their favorites’) games against James and the Miami Heat, he has to look longer and harder to find the potential peaks in his regular season. Well, even the Heat’s star forward could circle in red the game he’ll play Wednesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Oklahoma City at Miami. Possible 2014 Finals preview.
Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James. Probable 2014 MVP showdown.
Yeah, James sounded as into the matchup with the Thunder’s ridiculously potent thin man as anyone who’ll be stuffed in a sofa, crammed into the stands or working hard on the hardwood alongside them.
“It’s not secondary, it’s first-dary,” James said, coining a word for reporters after practice Tuesday to stress the urgency of containing Durant’s offense in order to beat OKC. “Absolutely, he’s one of the toughest covers. Between him and Melo [Carmelo Anthony], it’s the toughest covers for me individually.
“So it’s a game within a game. You want to win but you also want to do your part against who you’re going against. I like going against the best. He’s definitely right up there.”
That stuff matters. Chamberlain had Russell, Magic had Larry – with rivals, the elite often can push themselves higher. Imagine if Michael Jordan, in all his greatness, had had that one undisputed challenger; instead, he had many, each diffused a bit and slightly off. Like Reggie Miller, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, the Detroit Pistons’ defense and the New York Knicks. And of course everybody else he named at his HOF induction speech.
Tiger Woods, at the peak of his powers, had … who, David Duval? Something gets lost, that little extra gets left on the table, without a perfect rival.
That little extra was what everyone was excited about heading toward Wednesday. Including James, who only gets to face Durant twice each season due to their opposite-conference endeavors.
As the hype swelled Tuesday, driven by Durant’s breathtaking string of scoring outbursts, James said: “Don’t get it twisted thinking that he hasn’t been a great all-around player. As you play more and more games, you get more and more comfortable in this league. You start to expand your game. It’s the same if you ask ‘How is Paul George now better?’ He’s just more comfortable. … And when you have talent and you work at that talent, things become second nature for you to go out and play.
“So KD rebounding and making plays for his teammates is something he’s always been able to do. He’s just getting more comfortable at doing it.”
As effusive in his praise as James was of Durant’s pyrotechnics at one end of the court, he got intriguingly tight-lipped about any progress or impact the Thunder forward has defensively.
“Uh, he’s more comfortable playing on that side of the floor,” he said. “That side of the floor is why I really take a lot of responsibility in. I don’t like to do too much comparing when it comes to defense.”
What, he’s supposed to give up everything to Durant? Flip him the access code to the house, the keys to the Ferrari and the TV remote, all at once, just like that?
Anyone reading between the lines of James’ response might expect lockdown mode in some form, at some point, from the proud Miami player. Something akin, maybe, to the way he helped hold George scoreless in the first half of their Dec. 10 game in Indianapolis.
The top two consensus MVP candidates don’t lock horns like this very often. Anyone snoozing on Durant as a deserving alternative to James hasn’t been paying attention.
“All you’ve got to do is turn on the TV and there he is,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said. “He’s on a great tear right now, one of the greatest tears of all time.”
Said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra: “Obviously you see the video game numbers he’s putting up, but at the heart of it, he’s a fierce, fierce competitor. So what he’s doing right now is notable because they could have come up with a lot of excuses why they couldn’t compete in that Western Conference at the level they are. He’s raised his game and it’s pulled their team right along with him.”
All-Star teammate Russell Westbrook‘s latest knee injury left Durant with a choice: Endure and survive till he returns and push toward the postseason. Or hit the shift paddles and dive over to the far-left lane, blinker be damned.
All this MVP chatter comes from the latter.
“I’ve got to go with KD at this point,” Minnesota’s Kevin Love told NBA.com this week. “He’s been absolutely unbelievable – and that’s not taking anything away from LeBron. But KD has been absolutely out of his mind since Russ went down.”
It’s not about overlooking the swell seasons being offered up by Love, George, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Paul until he got hurt or anyone else. It’s about acknowledging that Durant, already formidable, has turned lethal.
“Right now, most definitely it’s got to be one of those two guys,” veteran Charlotte big man Al Jefferson said. “LeBron James, he’s gonna be at the top of the conversation every year just because of the things he does for his team. I just haven’t seen no one put a show on in the last month like Kevin Durant. Without his sidekick, and they’re still consistent winning, and he’s averaging 30-plus points the last 10, 11 games. So I mean right now, I think he’s got the edge.”
In his last 13 games, Durant has averaged 37.8 points on 53.7 percent shooting. He had a triple-double against the Sixers and hung 54 points on the Warriors. He scored 40 or more four times and at least 30 in 11 consecutive games. His current 31.3 scoring average, if maintained, would be the highest since Kobe Bryant averaged 31.6 seven years ago. And if his stats line holds up, he’ll join just six others in NBA history to average at least 31 points, seven rebounds and five assists. The others: Chamberlain, Jordan, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and James.
“He’s 6-11, he can get his shot off the majority of the time,” Miami’s Dwyane Wade said. “And he has a very easy shot to shoot for him, at a very high percentage. I don’t think going into the game scoring is his concern. He was born to score.
“For a defense, you have to be concerned about what his teammates are doing.
KD is going to get an opportunity to score 30 a night. That’s the talent he has, the position he’s been put in. You’ve just got to try to make those 30 a little tougher and at the same time be aware of everyone else.”
Durant’s range extends from under the rim to the VIP parking lot, so a defense like Miami’s that normally seems six- or seven-players thick gets thinned. “He extends your defense out four or five steps further out than it is normally used to,” Spoelstra said. “At times that court is going to look big.”
But wait, there’s more!
“He’s added more to his tool kit,” the Heat coach said. “He can make any shot in the book right now. From deep, from inside. He’s got the midrange. He has the floaters. He works you in the post. And he’s an improved passer. He’s at a career-high clip right now setting up his teammates and that makes their team even more dangerous.”
Defensively? “He’s a multi-positional defender now,” Spoelstra called him. “Impacting the game on both sides of the court. But somebody of his length and knowledge and experience, it was a matter of time.”
A matter of time before Durant crowded into the MVP conversation for real, after finishing second to James by a respectable margin in 2010, 2012 and 2013.
The criteria for that award can get tricky, weighted with tangibles, intangibles, advanced analytics and personal biases of the voters. But team records appear to be a big factor – only once in the past five seasons has the MVP gone to the guy whose team won fewer games than the runner-up’s team (James in 2012). That was one of the reasons Derrick Rose wrested the Podoloff trophy from James in 2011.
Then there are head-to-head clashes like the one Wednesday. They tend to stick in voters’ craws. The teams meet again Feb. 20 in Oklahoma City.
Beyond the differences in their games, Durant and James offer MVP voters almost a blue-state, red-state gap in public personas and personal styles. One plays in one of the NBA’s flashiest, more alluring destinations, the other in the middle of flyover country, eh, somewhere out there. People save for years hoping to afford a dream vacation to south Florida. Most might take a minute to even spell OKC much less travel there.
James and his people staged that worldwide telecast in July 2010 so he could announce which job offer he was going to accept. Durant … does he even have “people?”
He quietly re-upped with the Thunder that same month – players’ second contracts (rookie extensions) typically are more quiet than their third ones, when true free agency looms – but at $56.9 million from this season through 2015-16, Durant will be paid within a few Bentleys of James’ $61.7 million (if the Miami star were to let his deal run full term).
So one can earn in Oklahoma. It appears, save for the rings yet, that one also can win. The issue at hand is whether one can win MVPs there, too.
Seriously, with all the obsession with market size – the fan base, the media rankings, the traffic jams, the inflated property values and tax rates, and so on – could Durant be that much “bigger,” in terms of famous, than he already is playing in OKC?
Some great players don’t get the full-blown famous treatment until they go to the bright lights, like Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen or Bosh. But Dwight Howard didn’t really need to leave Orlando, if only he’d committed to sticking and ushering the Magic back to The Finals a couple more times. It wasn’t James leaving Cleveland that shot him up the celebrity scale – winning titles did that. Ditto, most likely, for Durant in OKC.
Durant also has never heard the sort of criticism, borne of expectations and hype dating back to grade school, that was heaped on James. Torch a No. 35 Thunder jersey? You get the sense that if Durant ever did leave as a free agent, fans in Oklahoma City would line up to shake his hand and thank him for the thrills. The 6-foot-11 shooter might lead the league in fewest lusty boos rained down on an opponent, almost generally considered one of the league’s “nicest” guys.
Just don’t assume that means a deficiency of ruthlessness.
“It’s funny,” said Love, a good friend of Durant. “I laugh when KD talks to the media, ‘Aw, what I’m doing, you guys really shouldn’t gawk at or think that it’s a big deal.’ I do believe that he thinks that way – in a way – but he wants to be the best player in the game. He has a fire inside him. I see it when I work out with him the whole summer. He’s a big-time player but also, he wants to be the best.
“He’s very humble. The ego is harder to find. But at the same time, he exudes that extreme confidence. He’s unbelievable.”
Love smiled as he spoke, amused at what Durant gets away with, cloaking his competitive fire at times.
Heat fans won’t be letting him off the hook, of course, in his only regular season trip to Miami. This game, this night is different. For them and for their resident – but temporary? – reigning MVP.