The generation before was spoiled with Magic vs. Bird. The one before them, Russell vs. Wilt. Then we skipped two all-time greats. Once Michael overcame Detroit to begin churning out titles making the ’90s his own little shop of horrors, no one specific player pushed him to his physical and mental limits. Instead, that was normally a combination of himself and Phil Jackson. Through his own admission, Kobe didn’t either, unless Shaq is included. And without question, no mega-superstar has had a more unique championship arc than Bryant.
That brings us to the present.
Hubie Brown hasn’t confirmed these entries. Nor has Dr. Jack Ramsay mandated these rules common law, but a rivalry normally consists of four vital factors. Give or take a few.
1. Two players of rare, exciting talent who also play the same position
2. Two players who force the other to push their game to previously unheard of levels
3. Two players who force even the casual fan to clear their schedule and watch
4.Two players who at some point beat each other, never allowing one side gain the upper hand for an extended period
LeBron and K.D. satisfy three of the four categories. The Heat have beaten the Thunder five consecutive outings dating back to Miami’s delayed sweep last June, with all of the games decided by one or two pivotal plays sans Game 5. LeBron even holds the personal edge with eight wins in 10 meetings. Tonight, we’re afforded James vs. Durant once more on national television in a contest headlined by the unquestioned two top players in the game today. The two best players still in the youths of their careers, too, with LeBron just entering his prime and Durant on the cusp of his.
Remember the agonizing lockout summer of 2011? The one where an NBA season appeared dead in the water until a secret meeting sealed the deal? During the verbal melee, K.D., ‘Bron and several other players helped keep the league afloat with goodwill in an otherwise hideous situation through organized pickup games. In particular, Durant’s 66-point blitzkrieg at Rucker Park resulted in the single-most defining moment that summer and a verb for good measure (whenever Kevin’s putting up insane numbers, he’s “going Rucker”). They weren’t Elgin Baylor vs. Wilt Chamberlain in any regard, but Bron and Durant were meant for one another, this generation and meant to elevate basketball to new heights.
Think about how we enter tonight’s marquee matchup, about as hyped and anticipated a January regular season game gets. Durant opens his doors to LeBron in the midst of a season capable of placing him in rarefied air. With an all-around game constantly improving, the league’s top scorner (29.0), first in win shares (12.9) and the second overall Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Kevin could very well end the season with a line reading 50-40-90. As in 50% field goals, 40% three point shooting and 90% from the charity stripe. Saying he’s been dominant all season would be like saying water is wet or Joe Biden seems fun as hell to go binge drinking with.
The petrifying part comes upon realizing this likely won’t go down as his finest campaign. At the rate Durant improves, next season could make the current one a blip on the radar.
There’ve been stretches this year where I’ll realize Durant’s game now showcases 6’10 combo guard/swing forward with ridiculous handles, G-14 government classified accurary and enough power on his poster dunks that leave me saying, “Oh…shit…”
Oh, shit, because his game seems to be gaining intelligence with each dribble like he’s one of those hybrid human/computer freaks-of-evolution from I, Robot.
Oh, shit, because wait until he really develops a back-to-the-basket offering.
Oh, shit, because Kevin Durant doesn’t turn 25 until September; a chilling realization when all things considered he could wind up with north of 10 scoring titles and the game’s all-time leading scorer.
Had this been any other season, with any other player as his competition, handing the MVP and coveted “best in the world” title to the Washington, D.C., native would be a no brainer. And let this marinate for a moment. Kevin Durant could realistically finish the season averaging 30 points, grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out four assists a night while shooting 50-40-90 and still “only” be the second best player in the game. The only equivalent to that scenario is telling a friend you ended up alone in a room with a naked J. Lo and Rihanna only to have your friend tell you he did the same…but with Beyonce on a week-long “hall pass” from Jay-Z.
That’s because LeBron James is the best basketball player in the solar system. He’s redefining history and rewriting what efficiency resembles. Years ago, the knock on LeBron was he didn’t use his size and speed to his advantage as frequently as he should. His jumper was a liability and his post-game was nonexistent. Fast forward several seasons, an embarrassing and humbling loss in the Finals and a Finals victory later, the proof is in the pudding.
If there is a human being playing finer all-around basketball than LeBron entering Thursday, he either hasn’t been born yet or Michael Jordan found a time capsule and catapulted himself back to 1992 or 1993. He’s not the next Jordan, a living icon who doesn’t need “defenders” at this point. He’s not the next Kobe. He’s not the next anybody, and that’s fine. As enthralling as it is to toss around comparisons, a point arises where we’re diluting our own perceptions basing basketball solely on – for lack of a better term – an ego density contest. It’s not about feeding into media hype. It’s about realizing, yes, rare basketball is rare basketball. LeBron is the first LeBron.
Here’s the list of players since the NBA was created who have scored at least 30 points and shot at least 60% from the field in six consecutive games: LeBron James. That’s it and that’s all. At third in the league in scoring (27.1), 11th in assists (6.9), seventh in field goal percentage (56.5%; the only true non-power forward/center in the top 10), the highest PER (30.95) and a current career-high in rebounds (8.1), the ways in describing what we’re witnessing are running thin. And if that wasn’t enough, through 49 games he’s shot over 40% in 48 of them.
There’s being good at your job. Then there’s being LeBron who’s making the difficult look elementary to the point where we haven’t seen this blend of skill, power and dominance – dating as far back as the Christmas Day game in Dallas in 2011 (and before then, actually) – since the Tiger Woods glory days in the early 2000s.
Am I overrating what we’re seeing out of him? Possibly, but claiming he’s doing this “all on layups and dunks” is short changing what’s in front of us. Even if he was, Wilt never put together a run like this and he remains the pinnacle of Lord knows how many utterly ridiculous scoring feats in the sport’s history. Shaq in 2000 or 2001 never did either and there wasn’t a soul or military creation on the planet capable of stopping him once he planted himself within three feet of the basket. So, again, what’s in front of us? One of the 12 best players of all-time already just now entering his prime while realizing the only force capable of slowing him down is his own motivation.
And perhaps Durant.
Like Michael Jordan’s triple-double streak* and Kobe’s consecutive 50-point barrage, LeBron’s 30/60 streak won’t last the rest of the season. I think. There’s a chance it comes to an end tonight in Oklahoma City. Then again, with the lights the brightest they’ll be in a non-playoff game this season, who’s to say LeBron doesn’t reel off one of those virtuoso 37-12-8-3 nights on 12-17 shooting. And who’s to say K.D. doesn’t drop 40 while giving us eight rebounds and eight assists. The beauty of having the two best at their craft in the game at 28 and 24 years of age, respectively, is the fact those numbers aren’t reaching. If anything, they’re lowballing.
And while the game is marketed around the two former Rookies of the Year, other superstars/stars/quality role players will help decide if this truly becomes a rivalry. For Miami, Dwyane Wade is rounding back into form since whatever it was that happened those last 20 minutes vs. the Celtics a few weeks back. He’s playing the best ball he has in probably two seasons and recognizes how his career and individual standing benefits from letting LeBron run wild. Chris Bosh is enjoying the best shooting season of his career and may never earn the praise he deserves for making the biggest individual sacrifice of the “Big Three” while coming up big in some of Miami’s most critical moments (Game 7 vs. Boston in 2012, for example).
For Oklahoma City, Russell Westbrook remains 1a to Durant’s 1A and one of the most passionate super talents the league has birthed in years. He gets off on bullying mascots and carrying reporters who ask stupid questions. Plus, he’s equally as vital to a Thunder championship as his counterpart and still a top 10 player despite the outbursts and critics labeling Russ the ultimate weak link. And Serge Ibaka seems poised and ready to supplant himself in the third-banana chair left vacant by James Harden.
It all reverts back to LeBron James and Kevin Durant though, sort of in the ilk how Kendrick Lamar and Drake have become the two new-age rap talents expected to shatter barriers in their own line of work both artistically and commercially. Until LeBron bows out following the conclusion of his prime years – a ways off at this point – the discussion of the league’s lead Alpha dog will always lay at the sneakers of the offseason workout buddies.
Valentine’s night epitomizes the next chapter in a power struggle which hasn’t yet become a “rivalry,” but one well on the brink of becoming so. The best thing about all is this? All we have to do is sit back, watch, argue on Twitter if it’s your fancy and appreciate the gift of top-tier basketball. K.D. and LBJ do all the heavy lifting.
And even better? We’ve got the All-Star Game Sunday night, which could very well come down to James and Durant going Godzilla-mode as they did last year (both finished with 36 and K.D. grabbed MVP).
Then, of course, there’s always June, too. Yeah, there’s always June.
* – Granted, Chicago went 5-6 (losing the last five in a row), but Michael reeled off 10 triple-doubles in an 11-game stretch. His averages? Try 33.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 11.4 assists in a “let’s see how this works” move by Doug Collins during the 1988-89 season switching Jordan to point guard. And the one game he failed to hit the mark, he went for 40-7-11. Never say never, but it’s probably safe to say those numbers will never be re-created again. At least in our lifetimes, they won’t.