Jun 22, 2012, 2:35 AM EST
For years, the LeBron/Kobe rivalry was the most compelling one in basketball, but we never truly got to see it play out on the court. Sure, their teams would play each other twice a year, and people would try to extrapolate conclusions from those biannual meetings, but there was never really anything substantial on the line during those games, even when Christmas-Day bragging rights were up for grabs.
Ultimately, the LeBron-Kobe rivalry had (has?) more in common with Mayweather-Pacquiao than it does with Ali-Frazier: while there have been literally millions of arguments about which player was superior to the other in comments sections and sports bars and on message boards, the two players never faced each other for a title when they were almost unquestionably the two best players in the world. They had four decent chances at it, but James’ team failed to make it out of the Eastern Conference in 2009 and 2010 and Bryant’s team failed to make it out of the West last season and this season. (For the sake of brevity, I’ll leave it at that.)
The good news is that we don’t have to mourn the fact we didn’t get a LeBron-Kobe Finals (yet-as a rule, I never count out Kobe or Jerry Buss) too much anymore, because the LeBron-Durant rivalry is already shaping up to be an all-time classic. For five wonderful games, the NBA’s best all-around player went toe-to-toe with its best pure scorer, and neither of them disappointed, dominating in their own ways en route to a classic, if short, NBA Finals.
All series long, James picked apart Oklahoma City’s defense while Durant simply disregarded Miami’s. James used his combination of size, speed, and passing ability in a way we’ve never quite seen him do before — he was completely hell-bent on getting to the paint time and time again, either by blowing by Thunder players on the perimeter or using his refined post game to back them all the way down. When he got to the paint, he’d either finish, draw contact and go to the line, or kick it out to a wide-open teammate for an easy score. He was also an absolute monster on the boards, and he finished the finals with eye-popping averages of 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game, although he did turn the ball over more than he normally does. After the Finals, LeBron was given his first Bill Russell Trophy, and he more than earned it.
As good as LeBron was, however, Durant was nearly as impressive. The Thunder didn’t run many screens for Durant or get him the ball of pick-and-roll sets very much — apart from transition baskets, Durant got the ball almost exclusively in isolation situations with a Heat defender directly in his face, usually LeBron James or Shane Battier. Battier has been one of the most intelligent and effective perimeter defenders in the league for years, and James has become an absolute monster on defense. He is almost universally considered the best perimeter defender in the league, and received more votes than any other player for the All-Defensive Team. In last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, he neutralized Derrick Rose when he guarded him in fourth quarters, and he held Paul Pierce to 34.4% shooting in this year’s Eastern Conference Finals.
Kevin Durant, who is all of 23 years old and was playing in his first ever NBA Finals, simply did not care about any of that one little bit. Durant would either pull up straight over his defender before dribbling towards the basket and make a long-range shot, take a few dribbles towards the hoop and pull up for an unblockable pull-up or floater, or get down near the basket and swish a turnaround jumper like he was shooting in an empty gym. Durant, who is freaking 23 years old and was facing some of the best team and individual defense in the league and was not getting set up with many easy looks, scored 30.6 points per game while shooting a disgusting 54.8% from the floor and 39.4% from beyond the arc.
What’s more, it never looked like he was on the verge of blinking, let alone sweating. And he never disrupted the flow of the Thunder offense — if anything, it would often seem like Durant had barely been involved in the Thunder offense before you realized he already had 25 points. Early-20s LeBron took our breaths away with his combination of size, athleticism, and pure basketball talent and IQ, but Durant’s size, skill, and seeming inability to be fazed on the court are just as breathtaking.
James drew first blood what I’m hoping will be a long string of NBA Finals played between the Thunder and the Heat, but Durant proved himself to be a more than worthy competitor for James’ crown as he finally officially grabbed his. There are a million variables that could prevent a James-Durant rematch, both next year and in the years to come, but I’m hoping we get enough of them to make this one of modern basketball’s great rivalries.
Feb 1, 2015, 1:12 PM EST
Rondo suffered the injury during the Mavs’ Saturday win over the Magic.
Feb 1, 2015, 12:30 PM EST
Pistons fans booed Smith every time he touched the ball.
Feb 1, 2015, 11:00 AM EST
Greek Freak preparing well for dunk contest
Feb 1, 2015, 9:30 AM EST
Before helping Seattle Seahawks reach Super Bowl, Lynch was high school teammate of Leon Powe
Feb 1, 2015, 8:00 AM EST
Kent Bazemore moves into starting lineup with DeMarre Carroll also out
Feb 1, 2015, 12:30 AM EST
Jan 31, 2015, 11:00 PM EST
Three misses and a frustration foul on a single possession.
Jan 31, 2015, 9:30 PM EST
Minnesota fans boo Love during pregame intros, cheer him during tribute video
Jan 31, 2015, 8:00 PM EST
Jan 31, 2015, 6:30 PM EST
Kanter was dismissive of both Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut before Friday night’s win.
Jan 31, 2015, 5:00 PM EST
Cleveland plays the Timberwolves in Minnesota on Saturday.
Jan 31, 2015, 3:59 PM EST
Jan 31, 2015, 3:21 PM EST
With Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin back in the rotation the Timberwolves will not be such a pushover.
Jan 31, 2015, 2:00 PM EST
Green being unexpectedly held out led some to speculate that he might be dealt.
Jan 31, 2015, 12:30 PM EST
They’re not winning, but they still produce some highlight plays.
Jan 31, 2015, 11:00 AM EST
The tenth in Bryant’s signature line returns to a low-top silhouette, and the first colorway is inspired by Kobe’s early morning high dive as he recovered from Achilles surgery.
Jan 31, 2015, 9:30 AM EST
Denver’s offer of J.J. Hickson and JaVale McGee isn’t enough for Brooklyn to pull the trigger — especially with Lopez coming off of a 35-point, 12-rebound performance against the Raptors.
Jan 31, 2015, 8:00 AM EST
Those two together at this stage of their careers are a poor fit together.
Jan 31, 2015, 12:36 AM EST
Balance and defense win the day.
Jan 31, 2015, 12:01 AM EST
180 or 360?
- Report: Timberwolves’ Ricky Rubio set to return Monday vs. Dallas 6
- Nike unveils latest signature shoe for Kobe Bryant, the Kobe X (PHOTOS) 11
- Report: Nuggets trying to trade for Brook Lopez 12
- Last summer Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant talked, decided it wouldn’t work together 32
- Jimmy Butler even plans to play defense in the All-Star Game 9
- Damian Lillard “disappointed,” “disrespected” not to make All-Star team 45
- DeMarcus Cousins replaces Kobe Bryant in All-Star game 11
- Tyson Chandler, better than ever, thinking legacy 10