On Thursday night, LeBron James faced down Kevin Durant’s mutant-spider defense before shimmying his shoulder or stuttering his steps and launching bombs off a perfect jump shot, clearly refined through years of practice and playoff games.
LeBron’s offense has passed automatic – it’s art now, limited only by his own creativity. Durant, when it was his turn to score, had to throw himself at the rim with abandon. He kept crashing to the floor. His jumper – long-armed, satin-smooth, with a high release whose ease makes the ball appear lighter in and off his hands – was struggling.
Durant, so good, could not best LeBron. Durant is taller, 6-foot-9 to 6-foot-8, but LeBron is better.
My wife was watching at the end of last season’s NBA finals, when LeBron’s Heat beat Durant’s Thunder in five games for the championship. A camera caught Durant in an arena tunnel after the last game. He started sobbing as he melted into a hug with his mother. My wife teared up. Now she likes Durant.
In the 4th quarter of their game on Thursday, LeBron got the ball about five feet behind the 3-point line, which is 23.75 feet from the basket. Durant was in front of him. LeBron dribbled once and took two steps forward as TV announcer Marv Albert said “Shot clock winding down. It’s down to one!” LeBron leaped to shoot over the outstretched reach of a lunging Durant. They landed together, both watching the ball. It splashed the net’s nylon, a perfect swish. Durant held his gaze in that spot, the bucket, for almost three seconds as everyone else started running in the other direction.
The shot had gone in from roughly 27 feet away. Go stand on a basketball court some time and see how much strength it takes to shoot a basketball at all, let alone well, from that far away.
The next 3-pointer Durant took bounced straight down off the front of the rim.
The All-Star game is Sunday. LeBron is a starter on the East team; Durant is a starter on the West. Durant has lost the last six games he’s played against LeBron, including those four in the finals. It has to be eating at him. The only way the Thunder play the Heat again this year is if they meet in the Finals for the second time in a row.
So picture this: Durant hasn’t slept since the Thursday-night loss. He’s been in an otherwise empty gym, shooting over and defending an imaginary LeBron. He has become obsessed with exacting revenge this weekend in the All-Star game. He will guard LeBron on defense and he will find him on offense and he will dominate. He will send LeBron a message: You’ve been lucky; I’m the man.
LeBron, in turn, will embrace this challenge. Surrounded by the best players in the NBA, in a nationally-televised showcase, the two best players will battle for more than an exhibition win and a glass MVP trophy. They will battle for Durant’s soul.