OAKLAND — Kevin Durant has been talking about LeBron James a lot lately. Not belittling, not complaining about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ generational superstar. But discussing the gravitational pull these basketball players exert upon another.
So of course when there were 26 seconds left in the Christmas showdown Monday at Oracle Arena, with the Warriors clinging to a 95-92 lead against the Cavs, it was James who crossed the dribble to his right hand and drove the center of the key, and it was Durant who applied the defense.
It was the crux play of the game. James lost the ball. It rolled off of his hand and out of bounds under the Cavaliers’ basket. Possession went to the Warriors, and the scoresheet for the remainder of the game consisted of Klay Thompson free throws. Final score: Golden State 99, Cleveland 92.
Also final score: Kevin Durant 1, LeBron James 0.
James has been linked to Stephen Curry, because both are NBA MVPs and their teams have been the league’s heavyweights for three years running. He’s been linked to Draymond Green, too, because of their hostilities in the 2016 NBA Finals, which led to Green’s one-game suspension and helped nudged the championship toward the Cavs.
But the newest, and most apt, Warriors-Cavaliers mini-skirmish is KD vs. LeBron, and Monday’s game served as an incubator.
The theme had kicked into gear back in November, when GQ magazine posted a story on Durant. In it, the lanky forward reflected on the game-winning 3-point shot he hit over James in Game 3 of the Finals in June.
“That was the best moment I ever had,” Durant says in the article. “I made the game-winning shot in the Finals against my (bleeping) idol. Somebody that I really, really, really followed since I was a ninth-grade high schooler. I felt like he was passing the torch to me.”
It was a highly complimentary quote, yet it generated controversy. Some readers interpreted “passing the torch” as one man’s ascent while the other fades away.
So Durant clarified his meaning after a Warriors practice last week: “What I’m saying is when somebody passes the torch, they’re letting you in the room. You got LeBron. You got (Dwyane) Wade. You got (Carmelo Anthony). You got Paul Pierce. You got Larry Bird. You got Dr. J, all in a room. It’s my turn to be in there with them and enjoy being one of the best players in the world. It wasn’t the fact that I took it from LeBron and he’s gone now. Obviously, he’s still around.”
Obviously, he is.
A lot of NBA smarties are arguing that James is having his best season, though he’ll turn 33 on Saturday.
He is leading the league in minutes played and player efficiency rating, is third in scoring average (28.1), second in assists per game (9.1) and eighth in field-goal percentage (56.5).
And his Cavaliers are 24-10, the third best record in the Eastern Conference, though their No. 2 player, Isaiah Thomas, has missed the entire season thus far with a hip injury.
I would not argue that Durant is better than James. The King is the king until further notice; no one can dominate so many areas on a basketball court. But Durant owns their head-to-head matchups now, another reason the Warriors are prohibitive favorites to win their third title in four years in 2018.