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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.

It’s a relevant topic. Because unlike some other anticipated clashes, Durant actually guards James much of the time.

“He wants to guard him, first of all,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Christmas afternoon. “He asks for the assignment.”


“I just like guarding my position,” Durant said. “Small forward is supposed to guard small forwards. If anybody else would have guarded him — I mean, couldn’t put Pat (McCaw) on him, he’s just a little too small. Andre (Iguodala) doesn’t start, so I guess I was the last guy to throw in.”

If it sounds like Durant downplayed the personal rivalry, he wasn’t alone. “It was about the Cavs and Golden State,” James said. “Wasn’t really about those two.”

And even Draymond Green, the Warriors’ resident truth teller, put it this way: “I never saw anything where he’s more excited to play LeBron than he is to play anyone else. Obviously, when you’re a great playing against another great, you take on that challenge. And he’s taken on that challenge. … He’s stepped up big in moments, but I don’t see anything different than I see on any other night.”

But Durant’s actions, and his play, said otherwise. His stat line (25 points, seven rebounds, three assists) was pretty comparable to James’ (20 points, six rebounds, six assists) — except for the five shots Durant blocked. He was the inside presence that Cleveland lacked.

And then there was this telling exchange during Durant’s postgame interview, when I informed him that Twitter was blowing up over whether he had fouled James on that crucial last-minute play.

“It felt clean,” Durant said. “It was probably the same play a bunch of those dudes on Twitter was probably arguing about in 24 Hour Fitness, that that wasn’t a foul. They’ve been in that position before, but just not on Christmas at the Oracle Arena. So they know. They know if (the referees) don’t call it, it’s not a foul. But I’m sure if they get that call the next week in 24 Hour Fitness, they gonna be pissed that it was on them if they call the foul. So keep that (bleep) on Twitter.”

A little salty, right? Hearing that, it’s hard to believe Durant doesn’t carry some extra incentive into these games against Cleveland, and against James, his professed idol.

Since the Cavaliers edged the Warriors on Christmas Day 2016, Golden State has won five of six in the series, including the five-game decision in the NBA Finals. Durant has averaged 32.8 points in those games. So yes, the lanky one owns LeBron James right now.

And you know who confirmed that Monday? NBA official Derrick Stafford. He declined to call the foul with 26 seconds left, despite Durant appearing to make substantially more contact with James’ body than with the ball. It’s the sort of benefit that falls to NBA superstars. James may be one of the biggest sports figures on the planet, but he didn’t get that call. Durant did.

Durant isn’t merely in the room with James now. It’s his room.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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