Is there anything more attention grabbing than an individual battle between two Hall of Fame-bound players?
We were subject to it a few weeks ago when LeBron James and Kevin Durant went at it in Oklahoma City’s win over the Miami Heat. While the result is indicative of a lopsided affair favoring the Thunder, the battle between James and Durant was anything but as both players went for each other’s throat on one long-distance shot after another.
In the end, you can make arguments in favor of either player having the better game. That’s exactly where the greatness of these challenges is presented. Underneath the overlying challenge of ultimately winning a game, there was a one-on-one duel between two of the league’s greatest players attempting to show each other up in a shooting exhibition.
Of course, LeBron James and Kevin Durant certainly aren’t the first to do this. In fact, these types of battles have been occurring since the 1960s when the league’s top scorer and top defender met up over 50 times.
Just about every decade has its share of the league’s greatest going at it and having an entire game focus on the exploits of two players. There are few things more exciting than watching two players go at it and questioning what can they do next.
The best part, by far, is when they go on to top what they previously did. It seemingly happens every time, yet we never see it coming and have the same wide-eyed reaction every time we see it.
We’re not limiting this list of the league’s ten best duels, either. This includes duels over an entire career, over a playoff series, or even just for a single game if it’s good enough. The art of the duel should not be limited to a single occasion, as they can last for years, even decades.
Although we’re surely missing on some incredible duels over the past 60-plus years of the NBA, we were able to create a compilation of ten duels that captivated us and we reminisce about to this day.
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10. Tracy McGrady vs. Dirk Nowitzki
On a random December night, Tracy McGrady and Dirk Nowitzki put on a show that should still be recognized as one of the greatest try-and-top-this duels in NBA history.
For nearly 53 minutes, because we were so fortunate to be granted five minutes of free basketball, McGrady and Nowitzki hit impossible shot after impossible shot to keep up a high-octane, fast-paced game that we hoped would never come to an end.
McGrady was prolific in recording an absurd 48 points on 36 shots, including 6-13 from three, nine assists, nine rebounds, three blocks and two steals, yet he couldn’t top Nowitzki’s phenomenal career-high 53 points on 32 shots, 16 rebounds, four blocks, three steals and two assists in a game Dallas would eventually win by seven.
It wasn’t without the typical drama of an NBA game, though. In fact, McGrady actually cost his team a chance for victory in regulation when he missed the second end of a pair of free throws that would have given Houston a one-point lead with 27 seconds remaining.
McGrady was 4-for-7 on free throws on the night. Had he hit two more, this game would have featured two players going for 50. Even more strange, however, was that neither Dirk nor Tracy took the game-winning shot in regulation.
The overtime period was owned by Nowitzki. He scored the first ten points of overtime on the Mavericks first four possessions to give Dallas an insurmountable 103-93 lead with 3:36 remaining. McGrady would hit two three-pointers to cut the lead to four with 1:03 remaining, but a Marquis Daniels layup off an offensive rebound on the ensuing possession put a damper on any plans Houston had.
Of Dirk’s 53 points, 23 came in the fourth quarter and overtime, 31 overall in the second half. How exactly did Nowitzki earn that not-clutch label before winning in 2011?
9. Kobe Bryant vs. Gilbert Arenas
On December 17, 2006, we reached the climax of the Gilbert Arenas era.
While it’s one thing to score 60 points, it’s another, however, to do it against Kobe Bryant in his own building and single-handily outscore his team in overtime.
But it was a different time, a better time. Arguably the league’s two best scorers, Bryant averaged a league-leading 31.6 points to Gilbert’s 28.4 points per game that year, went toe-to-toe in a game that could seemingly never end, mostly because neither wanted to stop padding their stats.
Although the Wizards ended up winning by six, it wasn’t without the Lakers dropping 46 points in a fourth quarter they outscored Washington by ten in, overcoming Gilbert’s 15 points in the period. A Kobe assist off a Brian Cook three-pointer propelled the Lakers into an unlikely extra frame.
That’s where Gilbert grew weary of the Lakers’ antics. After Caron Butler hit a pair of free throws, Arenas would score the next 13 Wizard points, including a three-pointer with 57 seconds left that pushed the Wizards lead to five. Gilbert would then assist Butler on a shot at the rim to put the game on ice.
By the end of the night, Arenas had scored 60 points, 16 in overtime, on 32 shots, eight rebounds and eight assists, while Kobe Bryant had gone for a modest 45 points, ten assists and eight rebounds. They combined to shoot 12-for-23 from beyond the arc.
I’m already starting to miss these two. Both players never saw a shot they didn’t like, radiated confidence, and were extremely committed to their craft of scoring a whole bunch of points.
Who do we have to possibly replicate this?