VIDEO: LeBron James at shootaround
CLEVELAND – By the time Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell had shared eight seasons in the NBA — from Chamberlain’s rookie season of 1959-60 through 1966-67 — the legendary centers had battled 115 times. Eighty of their head-to-head clashes had come in the regular season to that point, with another 35 in the playoffs.
Other great NBA rivalries offered lots of head-to-head matchups, too. Oscar Robertson and Jerry West had met 62 times for the Royals and the Lakers, respectively, through their first eight pro seasons. Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller had butted heads 31 times, all their matchups through eight seasons — like Robertson’s and West’s — coming in regular season games.
Even Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, headquartered on opposite coasts their entire careers, had squared off 32 times through their first eight NBA seasons. Thirteen times they met in the regular season (on their way to 19) and 19 more were playoff games in the classic Lakers-Celtics rivalry.
All of which makes those of us at Hang Time Headquarters feel a little cheated, realizing that when Cleveland’s LeBron James and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant meet Thursday night at Quicken Loans (8 ET, TNT), it will only be their 20th showdown in what now is their ninth shared NBA season.
“You guys know me — I’ve always loved playing against the best, the best guys in our league, but it’s never about that,” James said Thursday after the Cavaliers’ shootaround session at the team’s practice site in Independence, Ohio. “That’s more of a fan perspective. Fans like to see those matchups. I mean, I like to compete against the best teams, and they’re one of the best teams. That’s what means more to me than anything.”
Here’s the part James undoubtedly likes: He has an 11-3 record against Durant in the regular season and a 4-1 edge from their 2012 Finals meetings when the Cavs star was with Miami.
Their individual stats, while close, favor James as well: He has averaged 29.3 points, 64. rebounds, 6.5 assists and 38.1 minutes against Durant in the regular season, with the Thunder star countering with 29.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 40.2 minutes. In that lone Finals hook-up, James averaged 28.6, 10.2 and 7.4 to Durant’s 30.6, 6.0 and 2.2. Of course, Durant entered the league four years later (2007-08 to James’ 2003-04), so James always has had an experience edge in their battles.
In terms of personal accolades, in the categories of MVP awards, scoring titles, All-Star-appearances, Rookie of the Year trophies, Finals trips and rings, James is 4-1-11-1-6-2. Durant is 1-4-6-1-1-0.
And still, it’s a rivalry that has gotten nearly the traction that a lot of NBA followers hoped when James, at age 28, and Durant, 24, led their Miami and OKC teams to The Finals three years ago. Don’t blame James — he keeps showing up every spring. It’s just that Durant has been derailed by injuries and by a Western Conference more rugged than the East.
This season it’s more of the same, with the Cavaliers sitting atop the East with a 16-7 record while Oklahoma City, at 17-8, ranks third behind Golden State and San Antonio.
But Durant appears to be as good as or better than he was prior to the injuries that shut him down after just 27 games last season. In fact, James said Durant is staking out uncharted territory for NBA players, in terms of his height and his talents.
“He’s a 7-footer with 6-foot ball-handling skills and a jump shot,” James said. “And athleticism. It’s never been done in our league. Never had a guy that’s 7-foot, can jump like that, can shoot like that, handle the ball like that. So it sets him apart.”
He’s not a common player — neither of them are — and theirs is not an everyday meeting, so enjoy the ones you can. The Cavaliers and the Thunder will meet again, for the second and final time in 2015-16 barring a Finals clash, on Feb. 21 in OKC.