On Jan. 29, Kevin Durant was in the midst of maybe the hottest stretch of his career, and the Thunder trounced Lebron James' Heat. For the first time in his career, Durant wasn't looking so far up at Lebron.
On Thursday night - with Lebron in the midst of the hottest stretch of his season - the Heat gave the trouncing right back, dominating the Thunder 103-81.
So does that mean Lebron is back in front? Or does that mean this entire debate is way too reactionary and it needs to play out for the rest of the season? Probably the latter. Still, it was intriguing enough to be the night's key matchup.
Most of the history between James and Durant was covered in the previous post. On top of that, TNT aired a nice promo showing the elevated stakes the rivalry has taken on over the past two seasons. They even billed it as "James vs. Durant II," which is interesting in itself because James still gets top billing - justifiably so, but still something that should motivate Durant.
Just to summarize the last meeting though:
Durant: 33 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals.
James: 34 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assist, zero steals.
The numbers were close, but the team performances, as well as the overall feel of the game, said Durant all the way. He had his fingerprints on everything. From feeding teammates to hounding on defense to grabbing boards, it never felt like Durant wasn't in control of the entire game. James, on the other hand, just seemed a little more off, a little less dialed in, a little more distant.
Since that matchup though, James has seemed to make a point of distancing himself from Durant. He made his Mount Rushmore comment (suggesting he's an all-time great, and he has no present equal), he made that dunking video, and he said that Durant doesn't have any pressure to win a title "until I retire."
Most importantly, however, he's done a lot of talking with his play. In the seven games since the Jan. 29 meeting, James has averaged 30.4 points/8.9 rebounds/7.6 assists, bringing Miami back into the fold for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
That's the thing with this entire MVP race, though. In that same time since the Jan. 29 meeting, in eight games, Durant is averaging 32.2 points/7.6 rebounds/7.4 assists. But the narrative has shifted for some reason. Maybe it's because Lebron kept talking, and maybe it's because Durant was so out-of-this world during January that people got spoiled and 30/7/7 because the norm for KD.
No matter the reason, Thursday night's game still would have MVP-race implications, no matter how outrageous that may seem.
Lebron certainly came out like a guy with something to prove. With KD guarding him, Lebron finished the first quarter 8-10 shooting for 16 points, and added two assists and two steals. He was, even by Lebron James' standards, on a whole different level. Backing down KD and getting to whatever spot he wanted. Jumping passing lanes. Finding teammates when the defense cheated toward him. Basically controlling every aspect of the game the way KD did in the first matchup.
Have a look at his 8 first quarter makes here. Almost all of them were easy looks. The only two shots he missed were heat-check 3-pointers that rimmed out.
Durant, on the other hand, came out timid. This time he was the one a little less dialed in. The easy excuse is to say that he was trying to re-establish his game with Russell Westbrook, who returned from his knee injury, but that's a cop-out. Durant was simply lacking that killer instinct that James so clearly had, and it set the tone for the entire game. Durant's numbers after one quarter: 1-5 shooting, 2 points, one rebound, one assist, three turnovers.
The Thunder made a couple runs to make a game of it, and Durant was behind a bit of it. But every time they got close, it was James and his supporting cast ready to answer the call and pull away once again.
Just as in the first matchup though, the final numbers make it look a lot closer than it was. James had 33 on 15-22 shooting, seven rebounds, three assists, four steals. He even had eight turnovers, making it seem like he wasn't all that dominant after all. But he was.
After the slow start, Durant came on and finished with 28 on 10-22 shooting, with eight rebounds, three assists, two steals and five turnovers. Even typing that out, it's making me wonder if the matchup was as one-sided as I thought.
That's how this goes, though, and will continue to go for as long as these two guys keep going at it each year. You can get caught up in the numbers - in fact, when voting for MVP, you really should take the numbers into heavy, heavy consideration - but you also need to just see for yourself how these matchups are going. Two games, two similarly dominant performances from both stars, and yet two vastly different results for either team. KD controlled game one, and his team got the blowout win. James controlled game two, and his team got the blowout win.
Wash, rinse, repeat, until June (hopefully).
1.) Seriously, watch that first quarter from Lebron again. That's as dominant as anyone has been against the Thunder this year.
2.) Lebron misses rebound - leads to KD jumper:
With the Heat up 43-30 in the second quarter, Serge Ibaka missed his second free throw, but James tried being too aggressive in pulling in the rebound and lost it out of bounds (aka "Westbrook-ed the rebound"). The Thunder got an extra possession and KD did his best to capitalize, nailing a jumper to cut the lead to 11. At this point, the game seemed very much within reach, consider OKC had come back from a big deficit against Miami once this year.
The jumper from KD was big too because he was still trying to find his stroke, and he had a wonderful sense of the moment. He knew the Thunder were gifted an extra possession, this time from a guy that was absolutely torching them and had hardly made any mistakes thus far, and it was time to take advantage,
That's one of the most underrated skills of great players. Everyone likes to talk about crunch time and how great players handle that, but these are also moments where games can shift. Durant sensed the opportunity, and seized it. Obviously, it didn't amount to a win, but just having that ability to hit big shots to get the crowd on their feet is certainly special.
3.) Kevin Durant 3-pointer puts the Thunder within range for one last run
With two minutes left in the third and Miami pulling away yet again. Durant hit another one of those big, seize-the-moment shots. It cut the lead to 76-63, and with time left, put the Thunder in fine position to make a run in the fourth quarter. An 8-0 start to the fourth from Miami put a stop to that really quick, but again, those are the plays the team needs from Durant, and he has shown he can make throughout his career. It's just a matter of the rest of the team responding along with him, and finding ways to build on it.
Play of the game: Lebron puts Ibaka on a poster
Ouchhhhh. That's totally one of those plays people will turn to when justifying their vote for Lebron, too. "Look at how tough he is!" "He got hit in the face and just kept going!" "What a gamer!"
It was a great play. He won the matchup. But let's not elevate this into a larger discussion about how tough Lebron is. I can already hear Stephen A. going on and on about how Durant couldn't do that, he's skinny, come on.
Credit where it's due, though. A nice exclamation for Lebron after that performance.
Russell Westbrook vs. Chris Paul. Two of the NBA's best point guards, maybe even the very best, both recovering from recent injuries.
P.S. so much fun to have Russell back.