Coming into the 2013-14 season, the consensus seemed to be that the NBA Most Valuable Player award was all but guaranteed to be bestowed upon reigning winner LeBron James. It was his to lose.
As the month of January comes to a close, however, James isn't losing his grip on the MVP as much as it is being stolen right out of his hand.
And the culprit is Kevin Durant.
Before the game, all the talk centered around the MVP debate: James vs. Durant. Since the two best players in the league play in different conferences, they only have two games per season to make a statement against each other.
Coming into Wednesday, Durant had a lot working in his favor over James. His numbers were superior, and his Thunder had a better record, despite the prolonged absence of his wing man, point guard Russell Westbrook. Durant has put the Thunder on his shoulders with Westbrook out, averaging 36.9 points in the month of January.
What Durant didn't have, though, were many wins against the reigning MVP. LeBron fans could always point to Durant's 3-13 head-to-head record against James in his career.
With the win, Durant put that record into the rear-view mirror. He is 1-0 against James this season, and he stated his MVP case emphatically on Wednesday.
Looking at the box score, Durant's domination of James is not immediately apparent:
- Durant: 33 points on 12-for-23 shooting (4-for-9 from three), 7 REB, 4 AST, 2 STL, 4 TO
- James: 34 points on 12-for-20 shooting (1-for-5 from three), 3 REB, 3 AST, 0 STL, 3 TO
James had his typically-efficient shooting performance, except from behind the arc. But Durant beat James at his own game by filling up the stat sheet with rebounds, assists and steals.
Not that Durant wasn't his usual awesome self when it came to shooting.
Both he and the Thunder got off to a painfully slow start, as James guarded him early and the Heat brought quick double-teams whenever he caught the ball. Durant took only one shot in the first six minutes. On the other end, Miami rode the hot shooting of Chris Bosh to an overwhelming 22-4 lead.
But then Durant went to work. He closed out the first quarter with seven points as the Thunder got back into the game with a 17-8 run. While Durant scored another nine points in the second quarter, the star of that frame was reserve shooting guard Jeremy Lamb, who blitzed the Heat with 13 points as the Thunder flipped an 18-point deficit into a 55-50 halftime lead. After the game, Durant spoke highly of his supporting cast, per Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick:
Durant on his supporting cast: "I don't have a supporting cast. We're all the same."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) January 30, 2014
The third quarter was pure star-vs-star action. James and Durant traded buckets at the end of the frame, with James desperate to close the gap and Durant effortlessly matching him shot-for-shot.
What was going through Durant's head as he and LeBron went shot for shot? "Rucker Park."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) January 30, 2014
By the fourth quarter, there wasn't much left to play for—the Thunder were clearly the better team, and Durant was clearly the better player. James' supporters in the stands tried to muster support for their star:
Half-hearted MVP chant for LeBron as he's at the line, with Heat down 25.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) January 30, 2014
But, if anything, their halfhearted, defeated chants only reaffirmed Durant's dominance on this night.
Even James' legendary man-to-man defense could not slow down Durant, per ESPN Stats:
Durant was 9-17 with 23 points when guarded by LeBron James #OKCvsMIA— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 30, 2014
There are two ways to argue for an MVP candidate: the statistical case, and the narrative case.
Unfortunately for James, the statistics clearly point to Durant. Even coming into Wednesday night, Durant had put up superior numbers.
|PER (rank)||PPG (rank)||TS% (rank)||Win Shares (rank)|
|Durant||31.1 (1st)||31.3 (1st)||64.5% (3rd)||11.8 (1st)|
|James||28.7 (2nd)||26.0 (3rd)||65.9% (1st)||8.8 (2nd)|
James' supporters have been left with the narrative case: repeating well-worn platitudes like "LeBron is still the best until someone knocks him off" and "Durant hasn't won anything."
But even the narrative case is beginning to break in Durant's favor. He is carrying the Thunder without Westbrook. And now the narrative also includes the fact that Durant beat the reigning MVP in his own gym.
LeBron James might be one of the greatest players in league history. He may still be in his prime. He might still win his third-straight championship in June. But he is losing the race for his third-straight MVP. Kevin Durant is just that good.