As they prepare for their first meeting of the season tonight in Miami (7:00 p.m. ET), it is becoming clear that LeBron James and Kevin Durant are running two different kinds of races. LeBron is trying to complete a marathon. Durant is sprinting through his version of the 100-meter dash.
The MVP race comes down to the two of them, and Durant arrives with all of the momentum. His Thunder have won eight straight to seize a 2.5-game lead atop the cutthroat Western Conference, and over his last 13 games -- all without Russell Westbrook -- he has averaged 37.8 points, 6.4 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.9 steals while improving his shooting (53.7 percent over that span) in spite of intensifying defenses. On Monday, Durant could be seen pulling up for a midrange jumper over three Hawks with 1.5 seconds left to beat Atlanta 111-109. "Not fair, Kevin Durant," tweeted the Hawks' official account.
What Durant has been doing is similar to what Michael Jordan did in the playoffs during his fourth season. Jordan was already a star who had scored 63 points two years earlier in an opening-round game at Boston, but in 1988 he was averaging 45.2 points over five tight games against Cleveland to win a postseason series for the first time. A new kind of following was developing around him. Fans around the country were looking forward to his next game. He was 25 then, the same as Durant now.
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When LeBron quotes Durant's stat lines and talks about the run his rival is having, he sounds almost whimsical. It's as if he remembers what that was like. The reason he can't replicate what Durant is doing is because James has already done it. He's spent the last two exhausting years having that same impact. It isn't so much that James is worn out, which would imply that he is finished; it's more that he is preparing to play like his old self in the playoffs, which is all that he can afford to care about in his third year on top.
Durant and James are approaching one another on different planes, at different speeds, from entirely different points of view. James has already won the championships that Durant needs to win. He has had his time dominating in the regular season as Durant is dominating now. Instead of competing on the terms that have been set down by Durant over the last several weeks, James is focused on elevating his career to a higher level. If he is able to lead Miami to a fourth straight NBA Finals then he will achieve a goal that neither Kobe Bryant nor Tim Duncan nor Shaquille O'Neal nor Jordan himself was able to accomplish. The last team to reach four straight Finals was Larry Bird's Celtics in 1987.
It may look as if James at 29 can no longer keep up with Durant. But of course that isn't true. Let Durant or any other star try to play on LeBron's terms, and see how they would look in the middle of their fourth year doing it.
The star who already has everything is trying to hold onto what he has earned, and his younger rival is desperately trying to take it away. LeBron is bracing for two challenges, obviously: from the Pacers and Paul George, who will be 24 when Miami inevitably takes on Indiana in the conference finals; and then (pending both teams' survival) may come Durant, who by then should have Russell Westbrook beside him, with a young, big, physical and athletic rotation that will be attacking nonstop. Durant's Thunder (36-10 this year) are taking on the personality traits that James's Heat (32-12) developed in the 2012 Finals, when they beat Oklahoma City in five games.
"Early on I put too much pressure on myself -- first, second, third year, I just always wanted to be recognized as a player, or show people how much I've gotten better,'' Durant told SI.com. "But I've realized it's not about the outside. It's all about these guys here: How I can help them, and how we deal with each other as a team. That's been most important to me the last few years -- what these guys think about me, more so than the fan in the stands, or no disrespect to anybody in the media. I'm just always concerned with what my team thinks about me. I'm not out to impress anybody in the media or fans in the stands. I'm just always looking for approval from my coaches and my teammates."
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The most amazing aspect of Durant's run is worth repeating: His shooting percentage has improved even as the cast around him has been weakened by Westbrook's absence. Durant has been scoring more efficiently because that was what his team has needed from him. At the same time, he has been trying to help Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and other young teammates establish themselves, in order to be ready for the playoffs.
"I tell him, 'Kevin, this is a time - this moment - we need you to be aggressive. You're passing up good shots,'" said Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who says these things to the most dangerous scorer in the league. Brooks saw Durant investing in teamwork even as he committed 11 turnovers in a big win at San Antonio last week. "Five of them he was trying to find a better shot for his teammate and he passed up a good shot," said Brooks. "To me that's good, that's good. Because he's not a selfish person. He wants his teammates to have success."
Durant can feel his game peaking. "As a 19-year-old until now, I've played in the Finals, played in the Western Conference finals," he said. "I've been down in a series, we done been up in a series; we've swept teams, we've been close to being swept. I've been in every situation. It's been a learning experience, and I've definitely gained a lot from it, especially as far as mental and how to approach a game. I've had so many different teammates and champions like Derek Fisher and (Kendrick) Perkins and guys like Kevin Ollie that have helped me along the way. So I done been in every situation, been with every type of teammate, and I've learned from it all."
The only thing he hasn't experienced is the point of view of his rival. Durant has not won a championship, and he doesn't know what it is like to defend one of them, never mind two.
Each has what the other one wants. The goal for James is to play with Durant's energy in May and June. The goal for Durant is to understand, first-hand, how hard it is to not merely win the championship, but more so to be the champion: To stand your ground and hold off a world of challengers.