The trade deadline is over, the Lakers (and Kobe) are done, the Sixers and Bucks are still in the tank and the East remains two teams followed by fluff. The NBA regular season has been sucked dry of all suspense with one very interesting and fast-materializing exception:
We have an MVP race.
Everyone who foolishly thought the trophy was already in the hands of the engravers with specific instructions (that's "Durant" with a "t" at the end and not a "d") is now suddenly and very quickly backtracking a bit. Sixty-one points was a cold splash of water to the face of those who were too hypnotized by Kevin Durant's amazing January to see any other potential winner crystalizing in the future. And now here's LeBron James, the proud reigning two-time MVP, putting on a show the other night against the Bobcats with his career scoring high and sending a pointed reminder of who he is and what he's capable of doing.
LeBron didn't need to do this to convince anyone of his greatness. But we're living in a microwaved society, where judgments are often rushed, where the what-have-you-done-for-me lately mentality is rampant, where a few talking heads on TV somehow are allowed to set the agenda for everyone else to follow. And so, in that sense, 61 was necessary.
Anyway, maybe LeBron himself felt, deep inside, that he needed to change opinions. How dumb of us to think LeBron would merely step aside and hand over a trophy of any kind without a fight. So that's exactly what we now have: a battle over the second-best individual award in basketball (after Finals MVP, which means you were the best player on a championship team).
It's a fight where the two combatants will never admit to being in a fight because, well, it would sound too individualistic, too selfish. Therefore, what we'll get from these two is a lot of baloney, in terms of what they feel about the MVP. Something along the lines of "it's not the most important thing to me" (LeBron) and "my goal is to win a championship" (Durant). Actually, come to think of it, that's a competition in and of itself: Which player can deflect MVP talk better than the other and sound convincing in the process?
If you placed their hand on a Bible and fed them some truth serum, then the response would be different. For Durant, who has scoring titles, but doesn't have an NCAA title or an NBA title, this could make him feel like he's on par with the greatest to ever play the game. Getting the MVP is a big checkmark on his overall resume.
LeBron may not want the MVP as much as he does another championship, but the more hardware he has, the more convincing the argument he'll present in several years when he calls it quits and there's a big rush to put his body of work into historical context. It was LeBron who raised all the overblown "Rushmore" talk and he knows a bucket of MVPs and rings will put him on that mountain.
So who has the edge this year?
And what can we expect the final 20 or so games?
The answer to the first question is … neither. Strike this as a victory for LeBron because, at least in the public's eyes, he was riding shotgun just prior to the All-Star break.
Durant did plenty in the season's first three months and he did it well. That's why he was the assumed front-runner. He played without Russell Westbrook for all but a handful of games and this, more than anything, was the boost his MVP campaign needed. The image of Durant going solo (which wasn't really the case because of Serge Ibaka) and pushing OKC toward the top of a richly competitive West was just too convincing. It gave the impression, real or not, that Durant had to dig deeper and become a better player without his co-star. And then Durant got on an epic roll, not only helping the Thunder win games, but doing it in smashing style with game-winning shots almost weekly.
What we saw from Durant was pure fire. He did plenty of heavy-lifting in January when he averaged 35.9 points in 38.3 minutes. OKC went 13-4 for the month and won 10 straight. Durant broke for 33 points, seven rebounds and five assists in a win over LeBron in Miami on the next-to-last day of January, rallying from 18 points down, a fitting way to end a special month.
"To be honest, to be totally real," Durant said, "I don't have a LeBron picture (on my wall) when I'm going in there and working (on my game)."
Do you believe that? Didn't think so. Every competitor is motivated by another, in some way. In every sport.
Durant also injected a subtle MVP-like topic into the conversation when he said: "I'm a two-way player. I play both ends of the floor." That was perhaps a way to dispel the perception that Durant's only real advantage over LeBron is as a scorer, and that Durant has grown (which he has) as a complete player this season. He's averaging almost eight rebounds and six assists and both would be career highs.
LeBron may have bristled at all the whispers about him suddenly being the second-best player this season. Nobody ever suggested he was the second best, period, but LeBron's pride was challenged. And so he followed up Durant's January with a fabulous February, highlighted by his 33-point, seven-rebound, three-assist takedown of Durant in OKC four days after the All-Star break.
In the big February games, LeBron came up big himself: 30-8-7 (with 6 steals) in the Garden, 31-8-12 against the Clippers, 37-9-3 against the Suns, 36-13-9 against the Warriors and 42-9-6 against the Mavericks. It helped his cause that Miami won six out of seven games on a West Coast trip with wins against playoff-caliber teams (and a lone, confusing loss in Utah). Then came his 61-pointer, on 22-for-33 shooting, against Charlotte.
Given the short-term memory often associated with the viewing public -- why else does a late-season loss count more than an early-season loss in college football? -- the needle has moved in LeBron's favor based on the latest evidence, if nothing else.
Actually, the players have been in lock-step all season. Even though Durant went on a scoring binge, LeBron's game stayed at a high level. LeBron isn't as much of a scoring guy like Durant and so it wasn't a fair apples-to-apples comparison when Durant went ballistic. LeBron had a solid February, too: 28 points, six rebounds, six assists, plenty of defense. And like Durant, LeBron was often short-handed, with Dwyane Wade missing five games and scoring in single-digits in three others.
So how will this end? Well, the great decider could be, and maybe should be, how the teams finish. In that sense, Durant might have it harder by virtue of playing in a tougher conference by far. OKC must fend off the Clippers, Spurs and maybe the Rockets to get best-record in the West, while the Heat only need to poke Indiana in the eye.
LeBron has two remaining games against the Pacers, and after March 26 will be finished with the West (except for Minnesota and Memphis). Durant doesn't have the luxury of a soft schedule, but if OKC wins the very tough West, shouldn't that be enough, no matter where Miami finishes? Also in Durant's favor: If it's a toss-up, voters might suffer from LeBron Fatigue and decide that it's time that Durant win something.
The good news: Because both OKC and Miami conceivably have something to play for, we can expect to see Durant and LeBron on the floor the last six weeks instead of taking games off. Which means the MVP contest should be something to behold.
Hasn't it been already, though?