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With the MVP Award Hanging in the Balance, How Hard Will LeBron Push Durant?

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With the MVP Award Hanging in the Balance, How Hard Will LeBron Push Durant?
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MIAMI — After LeBron James signed with the Miami Heat in 2010, and in the two months prior to the start of that season's training camp, he devoted an inordinate amount of his energy to one aspect of his game: 

Balance. 

James wanted to have better balance on his jumper, better balance in the post, better balance on defense. Eventually, all of those improvements came and, over time, better emotional balance came as well—a contributor to, and a consequence of, his becoming a champion. 

But the need for balance will never cease. 

Not so long as he's expected to walk a tightrope.

Take the 2013-14 MVP debate, which is now front and center as Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder blaze into South Florida to face James and Heat on Wednesday night—with Durant having scored at least 30 points in 11 straight games. 

Let's be clear on this: As of this writing, Durant is the MVP front-runner. This should not surprise. Even I, wowed while witnessing James' brilliance over the past three seasons, projected Durant to win the award this season, for three primary reasons:

One, voter fatigue, after James won four of the past five MVP awards. This is somewhat similar to the sort that set in during the Michael Jordan era, allowing the likes of Karl Malone and Charles Barkley to take the trophy.

Two, the anticipated absence of Durant's sidekick, Russell Westbrook, for a significant stretch of the season, which would force Durant to be more assertive offensively. (That absence merely occurred later than expected, with Westbrook racing back only to suffer a setback). 

And three, the strong possibility that Durant's progress would appear more pronounced, since he had more room to grow as a facilitator and defender than James did. 

This is precisely how it's played out, with the circumstances, memorable moments and some statistics combining to create Durant's compelling case. And naturally, the national conversation has changed from what Durant is doing to what James thinks about it, and specifically, how much the latter cares about losing something that has for so long seemed rightly his.

After Tuesday's practice, James tried to strike a balance—that word again—between acknowledging Durant's individual excellence and appearing preoccupied by an individual accolade. It's the same balance he's tried to strike, with minimal success, when speaking of Durant's gaudy scoring totals lately: His praise has been perceived by some as envy. 

Tuesday, James touted Durant's talent, just as he always does. 

He reiterated that the challenge of covering Durant, for him, is approximated only by the difficulty of dealing with Carmelo Anthony. He spoke about how Durant, much as he's said of himself, "can't be stopped by any 1-on-1 player," about how "he's going to get his," and about how "what he's been doing of late is outstanding."

He spoke about Durant's "groove," and "when you're in a zone like he's in, it don't matter how much film you watch. You just try to make it tough on him. And he's going to make shots, he's going to make contested shots, when you're playing great defense on him. And you just can't get down about it. I mean, defense is great, but better offense beats better defense any day, so it doesn't matter." 

He spoke directly to those who claim Durant just discovered how to do everything other than score: "Don't get it twisted thinking that he hasn't been a great all-around player. Playing more and more games, you get more and more comfortable in this league, you start to expand your game....If you have talent, and you work at that talent, things become second nature for you to go out and play. KD rebounding and making plays for his teammates are things he's always been able to do, he's just getting more comfortable in doing it." 

He spoke with authority about all of these subjects.

It was only when asked about the MVP that he appeared to be measuring his words some, so they wouldn't weigh too heavily on one side or the other. 

Balanced. 

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Where does the MVP rank among his list of concerns?

"Nah, it doesn't rank too much," James insisted. "I mean, it's a great accomplishment, and I thank my teammates every time I get an opportunity to be a part of that. But like I said, I love being the MVP of our team. And if it results in being the MVP of the league, for your peers, I mean, it's a great achievement." 

Would he change his game to chase it? 

"Like I said, it's an unbelievable award, and I'm happy to be able to be a part of it a few times," James said. "But I've never changed my game. I mean, I am who I am. I score, I rebound, I pass, I defend, and if that results in me having individual awards, then so be it. If not, then it don't really matter to me."

Does he mean it? Well, you decide. It does say something that, for all of James' excitement about shooting 25 times—for just the second time this season—in Charlotte on Jan. 18, he's reverted back to his more customary reserved style since, shooting 21, 19, 15 and 15 times. 

So he's certainly not going out of his way to stuff that section of the stat sheet.

But let's say he does care.

What will it take to take the MVP momentum from his friend and rival? 

• He can start Wednesday by outplaying Durant in a win, which would be Miami's seventh straight against the Thunder, dating back to the 2012 NBA Finals, Then he can do it again Feb. 20 in Oklahoma City. Certainly, James has plenty of other opportunities to cause voters to second-guess themselves: The Heat have 13 regular-season games left on either ABC, TNT or ESPN. 

• He can start lifting his averages, which might require a bit of accommodation from others. Thursday, I asked him to assess the state of his game at this stage. 

"I feel like I'm playing pretty good basketball right now. I'm not playing as many minutes as I would like, but Spo's in control of that," James said. "But as far as my game, I feel pretty good."

But isn't the public perception that he's burdened by his current allotment?

"No, yeah, I don't like playing less," James said. "I don't feel like I need to play less. But I can understand that we've been playing a lot of basketball, so Spo's been monitoring that as well. But don't ever put it out there that LeBron wants to play less." 

USA TODAY Sports
Source: basketball-reference.com

James is averaging a career-low 36.9 minutes, a full minute less than last season, and well under his career average of 39.6. But it should also be noted that his per-36 minute averages are down from last season in points (25.5 to 25.4), rebounds (7.6 to 6.7), assists (6.9 to 6.3), steals (1.6 to 1.2) and blocks (0.8 to 0.3), while his turnovers are up (2.8 to 3.4). 

His shooting percentage continues to soar (56.5 to 57.9), and remains quite a bit better than Durant (.510), as are his assists per 36 minutes (6.3 to 4.9), while Durant is recording more points (29.6 to 25.4), rebounds (7.4 to 6.7) and steals (1.4 to 1.2) per 36 minutes.  

Maybe James makes up ground, or pulls away, in those categories as the season continues. Yet, even if he does, it may not be enough. Undoubtedly, many voters view James through a different prism: he is competing with his past deeds as much as he's competing with Durant. He needs to do something they've never seen before to win them over. In most categories, he's simply been his usual stellar self, or just the slightest of notches below, and that won't be sufficient.

• He can get his team to a better seed in the East than Durant does in the West. Voters will surely reward Durant if his team finishes higher in the stronger conference than James' does in the weaker one.

But again, back to balance.

Is it worth burning himself out, in any way, just to hold Durant back? 

Playing 40 minutes against Charlotte or Detroit or Orlando?

Probably not.

Wednesday, though, he isn't likely to hold back.

It's not about the race for the reward, so much as about the respect for a rival.  

"He's a great guy to compete against, man," James said. "I wish I could compete against him every night, because he brings that competitive nature out of you. I like going against the best, and he's definitely right up there." 

On balance, they are one and two.

Which comes first depends purely on one's point of view.

 

Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report. All stats are from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted. 

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