Posted Feb 27 2012 12:48AM
ORLANDO -- This MVP arm-wrestle is to be continued ... starting Tuesday.
LeBron James and Kevin Durant engaged in an entertaining back-and-forth where the All-Star Game award exchanged hands roughly 50 times, give or take. Whenever Durant's grip seemed secure on the trophy, LeBron ripped it away. And vice versa. Dunks. Three-pointers. More dunks. More threes. Durant wanted it more. Then LeBron wanted it more. Until LeBron wanted it less.
In the end, Durant took top honors Sunday, not so much for what he did in the final moments, but for what another player didn't. The narrative will be LeBron, after putting the East in position to win, waving off three chances for the game-winning shot. One pass went to Deron Williams, who airballed. Another pass was intercepted. Finally, LeBron inbounded the ball to Dwyane Wade, who missed at the buzzer.
For a player who famously faded in the fourth quarters last June, the link between the 2011 NBA Finals and this All-Star Game is just too ... delicious.
It made you forget that Durant was more invisible than LeBron in the fourth quarter, scoring two points and never being able to hold off the charge from LeBron and the East in the final frantic moments of the 152-149 West win.
Anyway, it was dizzy but mostly good stuff between the finest two players (no disrespect, Kobe) in the league. You suppose these next two months, when they chase the regular-season MVP, might be just as compelling?
Durant and LeBron are pushing their respective conference-leading teams, and are among the scoring leaders in the league, and producing big when it counts. Both scored 36 points Sunday and therefore, the MVP rested on whose team won. Perhaps this was an intriguing prelude, then, not only for season MVP but NBA title as well.
"Whoa," said Durant. "You're taking it down the line, man. It's too early for that."
Never too early to hope for what would be the league's best championship matchup.
As well as LeBron has played this season, Durant has made an equally-strong case for himself. He has a 51-point game. He's averaging just under 28 points, which was to be expected; shooting 51 percent, impressive for a shooter; and nearly took the three-point contest from Kevin Love on Saturday. And that's somewhat unexpected.
"Surprised me," said Scott Brooks, coach of the Thunder.
Like LeBron, Durant hit the court running ever since he was a rookie, averaging 20.1 points and never looking back. He's never had a bad season or even stretches. And after LeBron used a TV special to announce his defection to Miami, Durant quietly re-upped with the Thunder at a few strokes past midnight on the first day he could sign an extension.
Thoughtful and unpretentious, Durant has dodged the PR stumbles that sent LeBron crashing from the mountaintop.
"I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to coach him," said Brooks. "He does a lot of things well. But the thing I love about him is he comes in every day and gets his work in, whether he has a big night or a night that wasn't so well. He's a tremendous kid as you know. Off the court he's classy. He's a special teammate. What he does does not surprise me."
The beauty of Durant is he's a brilliant scorer in every way. He rarely forces shots. He doesn't need plenty of shots. He shoots a high percentage. He isn't afraid of mixing it up inside or challenging bigger players. He can dunk with authority. And his three-point range has improved to the point where he must be respected and guarded from deep.
He made five 3-pointers Sunday when he aggressively went for two wins: the game and the MVP.
"I had a rhythm going," he said. "Guys were feeding me. I had an idea I could get the award but with so many great players on the floor, you never know what could happen."
Well, we saw what happened. To LeBron.
All Durant is missing is a championship or even a trip to the Finals; LeBron has two of the latter, however unfulfilling they might be. But winning All-Star MVP might be the omen Durant is searching for.
"This whole thing is crazy," said Durant. "Words can't describe. I'm excited and glad I'm taking this back to Oklahoma City. Hopefully I maintain this level the rest of the season. As a kid you dream of playing in an All-Star Game but to be MVP is on another level.
"We'll see if I get another one down the line."
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