Jun 22, 2012, 2:35 AM EDT
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.
Jul 30, 2014, 8:59 PM EDT
Pat Riley got beat in free agency, and he doesn’t take losing well.
Jul 30, 2014, 8:00 PM EDT
Scott, not Mike Brown, would have followed Phil Jackson
Jul 30, 2014, 6:59 PM EDT
“He’s playing out of his mind. He’s being Derrick Rose.” —Anthony Davis on Rose.
Jul 30, 2014, 6:05 PM EDT
NBA reportedly wanted Bavetta to retire four years ago
Jul 30, 2014, 5:17 PM EDT
The elicits a shrug of the shoulders. Not much else.
Jul 30, 2014, 4:29 PM EDT
Thunder star texted Davis after winning the award last season: ‘You on your way to get it’
Tony Parker says skipping FIBA World Championships this summer was a way for him to ‘give back to the Spurs’
Jul 30, 2014, 3:41 PM EDT
Parker has played 91 extra games since his last summer break three seasons ago.
Jul 30, 2014, 2:59 PM EDT
“Guys that don’t have a reputation for playing hard defense are picking up full court.” —Damian Lillard on the level of play at Team USA training camp.
Jul 30, 2014, 2:19 PM EDT
Dallas originally signed Lewis, but voided his contract once it was discovered he would require knee surgery.
Jul 30, 2014, 1:34 PM EDT
Cleveland, Chicago, Indiana, Miami, Toronto and Washington all simply shake their heads.
Jul 30, 2014, 12:47 PM EDT
World Peace hasn’t drawn legitimate interest from NBA teams, so he’s considering playing overseas.
Jul 30, 2014, 12:01 PM EDT
Silly idea anyway.
Report: Anthony Bennett pulled from pro-am by agent, possibly due to his inclusion in Kevin Love trade talks
Jul 30, 2014, 11:14 AM EDT
Just like Love, Bennett is not going to be playing in any games this summer until a deal is done.
Jul 30, 2014, 10:32 AM EDT
Sixers put a multi-year plan together based on current rules, which would be adversely affected with a quick change to the system.
Jul 30, 2014, 9:55 AM EDT
This was 100 percent guaranteed.
Jul 30, 2014, 9:18 AM EDT
Hayward set to earn $62,965,420 over next four years
Jul 30, 2014, 8:40 AM EDT
“Everyone talks about match-ups (with big teams such as Spain), people have to match-up against us, too.” — USA Basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski
Jul 30, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT
LeBron still not as popular as prior to The Decision, though. It’s only a matter of time until he is.
Jul 30, 2014, 1:30 AM EDT
Cavaliers guard says initial response stemmed from his straightforward approach, confidence
Jul 30, 2014, 12:30 AM EDT
Collective Bargaining Agreement limits offseason charity games to United States and Canada
- Pat Riley says he didn’t think LeBron was leaving, Heat can turn around quickly 0
- Coach K on Rose: “Derrick’s played great, not good, and hasn’t held anything back” 9
- Report: Anthony Bennett pulled from pro-am by agent, possibly due to his inclusion in Kevin Love trade talks 41
- Report: Sixers fighting against immediate changes to NBA Draft Lottery system 55
- Team USA going small ball, but how many bigs do they keep on the bench? 4
- Report: LeBron James more popular than he ever was with the Heat 14
- Durant says 2014 USA team better than 2010 version that won gold 6
- Kevin Durant knows you’re talking about his free agency but isn’t giving many clues. He liked what LeBron did. 17