MANILA, Philippines – For four of the last five years, LeBron James has been the MVP of the NBA, the only player besides Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell to have pulled off the feat. James was the regular-season top dog in 2008-09, 2009-10, 2011-12 and 2012-13, and those accomplishments, besides the all-too-human tendency to go with what is current, has him threatening another Celtic legend, Larry Bird, for the distinction as the greatest forward ever to play the game.
James now has four MVP awards, surpassing the three Bird won three straight years from 1983-86, but the Celtic sharpshooter has won three NBA titles to James’ two and still has the upperhand in terms of clutch play and all-around reputation, if not in athleticism and highlight reels. James, for example, became just the second player in history to post 2,000 points, 600 rebounds, 500 assists and 100 steals in a season twice when he won MVP last year, but Bird did that three times. Michael Jordan is the only other player to have done that at least once.
Besides, when judging a player’s worth in history, one has to consider the kind of competition he had during his era of dominance. Jordan may be considered by many as the greatest individual player who ever suited up but his Chicago Bulls, no matter the 72-10 record they hung in 1996, would pale in comparison to those great Laker and Celtic teams in the ‘80s (or even ‘60s in the Celtics’ case) simply because the league had become diluted at that point because of expansion, with the number of teams having grown from 23 to 29 between 1986 and 1996, and the competition was not that strong anymore as a result.
The same goes in the case of James and Bird. While Bird battled, and dominated, in an era that saw him win more games than he lost against Hall of Famers like Julius Erving, Dominique Wilkins, Alex English, James Worthy, Bernard King and Adrian Dantley as well as such other All-Stars as Mark Aguirre, Kiki Vandeweghe, Jamaal Wilkes and Bobby Jones, James, by comparison, reigned against guys like Paul Pierce, Carmelo Anthony, Tracy McGrady, Andre Iguodala, Luol Deng, Caron Butler, a fading Vince Carter, Ron Artest, Shawn Marion and Grant Hill, as well as, yes, Kevin Durant.
Now, whichever group presented a greater challenge may be the subject of discussion for another day, but let’s just say one of the guys just mentioned may be poised to end James’ reign as league kingpin, at least for the regular season, if the first 50 games of the current campaign is to be the gauge. This is because the guy, Durant, has simply been as dominant as James ever was during his MVP reign. In January alone, when he momentarily lifted Oklahoma City to the league’s best record with 10 straight victories, Durant elevated his game in the absence of the Thunder’s other offensive weapon Russell Westbrook, who had a third surgery late in December to relieve swelling in the right knee where he suffered a torn meniscus in last year’s playoffs and won’t be back until after the All-Star Game.
Such absence, while possibly bound to affect any team’s championship aspirations, does provide somebody like Durant a good venue to prove that he can put his team on his back and literally carry it, as indeed he has as the 6-foot-10 forward averaged 35.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 6.1 assists for January alone while leading the Thunder to a 17-6 overall record since Westbrook was sidelined.
Durant’s torrid January performance, which saw him shooting well over 50 percent from the floor, more than 40 percent from three-point range and almost 89 percent from the foul line, raised his league-leading scoring average to 31.1 points as he punctuated that dazzling stretch with 12 straight games in which he scored 30 points or more – which fell just four short of Kobe Bryant’s streak of 16, the best such mark in the past 30 years, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s own 16 that also stood as the second-longest such string since the 1963-64 season.
That impressive stretch also included a career-high 54 points in a 127-121 victory over Golden State on January 17, a fifth career triple double with 32 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists in a 103-92 win in Philadelphia on January 25, two 48-point games against Minnesota and Utah, a 46-point performance in a 105-97 triumph against Portland, and a 41-point job in a 111-109 squeaker against Atlanta in which he scored the winning basket after rallying the Thunder from a 14-point second-half deficit.
In a 112-95 OKC triumph over the reigning champion Heat in Miami on January 29, the Thunder’s ninth consecutive, Durant engaged his chief rival, James, in a virtual game of horse, going back and forth as they tried to match each other move for move, shot for shot. Near the end of the third quarter, James bulldozed his way past Thunder shot-blocker Serge Ibaka who could only watch as LBJ finished at the rim. Durant quickly came right back with a feathery 28-footer for three points. James answered by driving left and draining a baseline fadeaway jumper over Perry Jones III’s 7-1¾ wingspan, and KD responded with a similar move on the right side and banked in a basket over James himself.
LeBron then gave KD a quick right-to-left dribble through the legs before draining a 21-footer, but Durant came right back with his own quick right-to-left dribble through the legs and faked James with another cross dribble and drive before hitting one more three-point bomb.
“Rucker Park, that’s what was going through my head,” Durant said when it was over, referring to the legendary playground in Harlem, New York where many a legend have played pickup games, including KD himself who scored 66 points at the Entertainers Basketball Classic tournament there in 2011. “It was fun. I’m sure the fans got what they wanted to see with that one.”
“It’s fun competition,” James agreed. “It’s been a while since I was able to do something like that and go at each other.” That was probably in the 2008 Eastern semifinals, where James and Pierce went at each other in Game 7 between Cleveland and Boston at the TD Garden. The mano-a-mano produced a classic, with James battling Pierce to a virtual standoff after collecting 45 points (on 14-of-29 floor shooting), five rebounds, six assists and two steals to Pierce’s 41 markers (13-of-23 from the floor), four boards, five feeds and two swipes, but the Celtics came away with the victory 97-92 en route to the conference finals and that year’s NBA championship.
Durant did outplay James in this blowout, tallying 33 points, seven boards, five assists and two steals to James’ 34 points, three rebounds and three feeds, and though KD saw his 30-point streak end the next game in a 120-95 blitzing of the Nets in Brooklyn – scoring just 26 points – the outcome was more the result of his coldblooded efficiency rather than any shortcoming on his part. The Thunder, perhaps wary of Westbrook’s injury problems, simply didn’t see the need for Durant to play beyond the third quarter with the game safely in hand and opted to play it safe.
The Thunder then saw their winning streak end at 10 in Washington 96-81 on February 1 as Durant shot just 8-for-21 on the floor for 26 points, but they bounced back strong with an 86-77 victory over a resurgent Memphis squad two days later and a 106-97 triumph against Minnesota on February 5, with Durant tallying lines of 31 points, eight rebounds and eight assists against the Grizzlies and 26 scores, nine boards and seven feeds against the T-Wolves. That kind of scoring also extended for KD a string of 25-plus-point performances to 16 consecutive games, the third-longest such streak in the past five years.
Durant’s spectacular run, which has put to rest whatever lingering doubts about his wherewithal to carry a franchise as the alpha dog even without a secondary star (contrasting somewhat with James who has Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, or, much earlier, Jordan who had Scottie Pippen) also put to rest any notion that he’s not the equal of James, undoubtedly the top star of his generation, and that he can’t beat James now if only in terms of individual value. His teammates have made no secret of their own admiration.
“Never seen anything like this,” Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, who has witnessed his own share of great teammates while with the Celtics, said. “I’ve played with some great players, but never seen anyone get buckets so easy. It’s too easy. Every shot he takes – one leg, fadeaway – you’re damn sure it’s going in. And then it does.
“Every road trip, we land and he goes to the gym at 8:30. It doesn’t matter if we practiced or didn’t practice. He’s going to the gym.”
“He’ll practice shooting off the wrong foot, and he’ll make those look easy,” Derek Fisher, another authority on great players who’s seen the likes of Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Steve Nash, added. “Kevin’s dominance is almost more similar to Shaq’s dominance, where he’s shooting 60 percent. He’s incredibly efficient. He’s not taking 30 shots to get 30 points.”
Durant, of course, would want nothing better than to finally land on top, and the first step is to win the MVP award and then the NBA championship. He’s been No. 2 all his life since high school, when he was rated behind schoolboy All-American big man Greg Oden, who was drafted No. 1 ahead of him in 2007 (their careers are now a study in extreme contrasts, providing the supreme irony of all), and though not everyone looked at him as second fiddle (Celtics president Danny Ainge for example would have made him the top pick had Boston won the lottery in 2007), the truth of the matter is he may have been second more times than any contemporary star: He was second three times to James in MVP voting in 2010, 2012 and 2013, his OKC team lost to James’ Heat in the 2012 NBA finals, and he finished second to Carmelo Anthony last year in scoring after winning the title in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
“I’ve been second my whole life,” Durant said. “I was second-best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I’ve been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the finals. I’m tired of being second. I’m not going to settle for that. I’m done with it.”
Durant has made inroads towards that goal with his amazing season thus far. And, truth be told, that may be enough to change his fortunes when they hand the MVP hardware sometime in May. – Rappler.com
Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the ’80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008. He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA’s International Basketball, and currently writes a fortnightly column for QC Life. A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drank and slept sports most of his life.