EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Kevin Durant, LeBron James wait to start next chapter of rivalry
Apr 7, 2023, 6:57 AM | Updated: 12:45 pm
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
PHOENIX — Generations in basketball are defined by the stars within them, a trend that took a few decades into the National Basketball Association’s existence to catch on.
It has been notoriously cited that this is where Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980s changed the league and how we perceive the game. Imagine the way we would have digested the battles two decades earlier between Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell in the present day.
There have been many more all-time greats to enter and exit the league in the last 40 years. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal and so on. But even with the mystical nature of the NBA’s storytelling, it will be lucky to find another Bird and Magic, a rivalry between two athletes mastering the sport at the same time with dozens of other spicy subplots we don’t have time to run through. HBO has enough to be giving its own retelling of it — in creative fashion — with a look at those Los Angeles Lakers in “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.”
The search for something that special continues. And you know what, that shouldn’t be a negative. Bird and Magic will stand the test of time for that very reason.
But in terms of two guys reaching the apex of basketball together in a way that inevitably forces them to match up and prove who is better, the best we’ve gotten since is Kevin Durant and LeBron James.
And we haven’t seen it for five years, a wait that will continue after Friday’s matchup between the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers. Durant is among the four Suns starters who will rest the second game of a back-to-back, with his team having already locked in its postseason position. Meanwhile, James is listed as questionable for a game the Lakers likely need a victory in to avoid the play-in. Now, there will be a 13-game streak of the stars missing one another in their respective teams’ battles.
Durant was surprised when he heard it had been 12 games heading into Friday.
“We’ve been through a lot of injuries, a lot of unfortunate situations,” he said Tuesday. “Anything can happen but we just move forward and hopefully we get a chance to be on the court Friday.”
Unfortunately, as basketball fans, we are at the point where we have to wonder how many more times we get the pleasure of seeing it. While I subscribe to the notion that James will keep playing at an elite level until he proves otherwise like the cyborg he is (even if it goes into his 40s), he is 38 years old. Durant, on a similar trajectory still in his prime, is 34.
The reality of individual rivalries in today’s NBA is that the vast majority of them don’t include bad blood. There’s a misconception that it doesn’t qualify as a “rivalry” unless that is dripped into the cauldron to craft together the delicious narrative stew for all to enjoy. Those have faded.
But what is never going to dissipate is the burning desire from competitors to show they are the best, and they get that fulfilled the most when facing off against the others who are in the conversation. Most of the faceoffs are overflowing with respect.
That is the case for Durant and James.
“It’s been amazing just being in the league the same time as him, somebody who is the ultimate competitor,” Durant said Tuesday. “Somebody that you (are) inspired by just from him, just seeing what he does on the day-to-day, but also got the opportunity to be on … Team USA so you see different sides of him. So there’s always been a mutual respect amongst us two and it’s always been great battles when we play against each other.”
At the same time, these clashes between stars inevitably include a few happenings of, “Man, screw this guy.” Fans can understand that it derives from that competitive spirit, like the few outings we’ve already gotten from Devin Booker and Luka Doncic.
And what that produces is magic.
Sure, Shohei Ohtani was more worried about getting the last out of the World Baseball Classic so he could secure a championship for Japan. At the same time, did the best baseball player in the world relish the chance to do it against his MLB teammate Mike Trout, another guy some slap that label on?
Of course he did! It’s what makes them so great!
Because Durant and James were in opposite conferences the majority of their careers, we never got to see this during the highest stakes of postseason basketball unless it happened in the NBA Finals.
As it turns out, they were both there for the other’s first title.
James and the Miami Heat got the better of Durant in 2012 for James’ against a young Oklahoma City team that surely had a few in its future (Surely! What could go wrong?!).
Five years later, Durant got his second crack at James for all the marbles with arguably the best team we’ve ever seen, that 2017 iteration of the Golden State Warriors. Durant had spent the season not so much deferring to Steph Curry and company, but more than willingly playing inside Golden State’s system while not doing the, “Actually, I’m the superstar and this is my team now” thing. But once it was him and James again, that alpha energy oozed off him.
Durant averaged 35.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.0 steals per game across a five-game 2017 Finals and shot 55.6%.
James, meanwhile, posted a ho-hum 33.6 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists, one block and 1.4 steals a night on 56.4% shooting. It was some of the highest quality basketball from two individuals we’ve ever seen at the top level of the game. Durant had the better team and was just better in his own right, too. He deservedly got his ring and Finals MVP.
It only took a year for the next NBA Finals meeting, and James proceeded to put together one of the best postseason performances in the history of sport. Game 1, an overtime loss for his Cleveland Cavaliers, saw James play what many there describe as just about perfect, a 51-point spectacle he would break his hand in frustration over losing after Golden State went on to sweep and Durant got to double-fist trophies again.
Perhaps Round 4 comes for the first time in the same conference. Entering play on Friday, there’s still an outside shot (4.8% according to Basketball Reference) of Los Angeles getting the fifth seed to face fourth-seeded Phoenix, and maybe a meeting could happen later in the bracket.
The pair was previously in the West together for just one season, the 2018-19 campaign when James’ Lakers missed the playoffs. Durant left for Brooklyn that offseason and now they are reunited on the same coast this year.
Including the postseason, we’ve seen this matchup 35 times, per Stathead. James holds the slight record edge at 20-15, thanks to a 15-6 mark in the regular season to offset Durant’s 9-5 advantage in the playoffs.
As you would expect, they are rarely anything but awesome. Of those 70 combined outings for the two, 56 include performances with at least 25 points and they both average nearly 30 per game.
Here’s hoping matchup No. 36 comes sooner rather than later.