Kevin Durant Has Made LeBron James Underdog in Head-to-Head Matchup

John DornCorrespondent IIIJanuary 28, 2014

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Call him whatever you'd like. KD. Durantula. The Slim Reaper. All are fine nicknames, but their shelf lives may soon expire after the season. That's when Kevin Durant will have a new identity, one that LeBron James has kept to himself for four of the last five years. 

By May, we can simply call Durant "MVP." If he hasn't solidified that with his scorching 11-game 30-point stretch leading up to an epic battle against James' Miami Heat, Wednesday's contest is sure shaping up to be a litmus test for the three-time MVP runner-up. 

Much of the NBA world is already sold on Durant, who is on the heels of leading his squad back from 14 points down to beat the Atlanta Hawks on Monday night. His 12-foot pull-up put a cap on the victory, the Oklahoma City Thunder's eighth straight and ninth in their last 10. The bucket gave him 41 points on 60 percent shooting to go along with four boards and a team-high five assists.

During his streak, Durant has shot 54 percent from the field, 42 percent from beyond the arc and 88 percent from the free-throw stripe. Monday's triumph was one of Durant's most impressive performances this season, having led his team back from a double-digit deficit to take the lead late in the fourth. 

With Russell Westbrook sidelined for the time being, Durant has taken the brunt of the offensive load upon himself. In doing so, he's not only proven dominant, but after Monday's victory, he's displayed the resiliency necessary to carry OKC through the postseason.


A New Finals Favorite?

When the Thunder fly into South Beach on Wednesday, boasting a West-leading 36-10 record, it'll be the first time the two squads have met in 11 months. The Heat took both meetings last season, sweeping the series and making it six straight victories against OKC, dating back to the 2012 Finals.

But with the Heat getting off to a relatively "slow" start, at 32-12, the conversation heading into this particular matchup will be a different one than ever before. 

No longer is James the undoubted, unquestioned, unthreatened MVP, with all other candidates competing for a distant second; Durant's extended outburst has essentially flipped the script. It's Durant's Thunder coming in riding an eight-game winning streak, while Miami has gone a mere 6-4 over its last 10. With the fifth-ranked offense and third-ranked defense in the league, OKC is through with the underdog role.

Westbrook's time away, once feared as a season-threatening blow, has acted as a catalyst to the league's most encouraging revelation in recent years—or if you're Miami, the most terrifying. That is, the Thunder's emergence as a bona fide LeBron stopper. 

To this point, the only teams that have given James' Heat a serious threat in the postseason have been the rugged Indiana Pacers, by using brute force, and the San Antonio Spurs, with sage experience.

What Durant has proven to the basketball world over the last month is that he's capable of taking down Miami in a way not yet accomplished: by putting the ball through the basket. Over and over again. It's by no means a perfect comparison, but when facing Carmelo Anthony, Durant's most comparable scorer in the league, the Heat are 1-4 in their last five games against the Knicks dating back to last season.


More Similarities Than You May Think

If voters have subscribed to the LeBron-style stat lines equating to MVP nods, thus eliminating KD from the conversation in years past, it's further proof that James' reign may be over. 

With Westbrook down this season, much like during last year's postseason, Durant has proved capable of handling playmaking duties at LeBron's level. During last year's playoffs, while leading all players with 30.8 points per game, he also posted an assist rate of 29.2 percent. Just a shade below James' 30.5 percent mark during last year's postseason. 

Durant has carried this trait into the regular season, sans Westbrook for much of the way. KD has upped his assist rate to a career-high 25 percent, creeping closer to the 34 percent mark that James has averaged over his career. Keep in mind, though, that all of James' offenses have always run through him as the essential point man. 

The two players' rebound rates are nearly identical for the year (11.7 for James and 11.3 for Durant), while KD has posted 13 double-digit rebound games this season, to James' three. It's also worth noting that LeBron is arguably the most skilled rebounder in Miami's rotation. 

While James has posted freakish shooting marks over recent seasons, Durant is a rare player on the wings who can remotely compete in this regard. LeBron has posted a career-high and league-leading .659 true shooting percentage this year, which takes field-goal, three-point and free-throw shooting all into account. Durant's .645 clip is the only one of similar usage that can compare.

As the two players are set to square off Wednesday, Durant and the Thunder now have more going for them than ever before. By carrying the 30-point streak into LeBron's house, and by contributing nearly the same, broadened array of skills as the reigning MVP so far this season, the 25-year-old may unleash his first hints of overtaking James—on both individual and team levels.

For Durant—or KD, or Durantula, or the Slim Reaper—it's all part of the mission to shed the least favorite of those countless monikers: second best.


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