Congratulations, Kevin Durant.
It must feel nice to have locked up the first MVP award of your on-pace-to-be-legendary career. You finally got off the relative schneid and took down LeBron James in something other than a scoring title.
Wait, what? That hasn't happened yet? We're only just past the halfway point of the 2013-14 campaign, and the stretch run has yet to occur?
Given the narrative of this season, one that has seen Durant put up monstrous lines and carry the Oklahoma City Thunder to victory after victory while Russell Westbrook recovers from arthroscopic surgery, it's easy to assume that LeBron is going to be dethroned.
But not so fast.
Durant is the deserving favorite at this stage of the season. There's no denying that.
He ranked No. 1 on NBA.com's Feb. 7 edition of the MVP Ladder, and that's not going to change in the near future. The OKC superstar built up a nice cushion for himself during January, posting absolutely insane numbers from start to finish.
Between the 54-point outing against the Golden State Warriors and the string of 30-point games, his scoring was just off the charts. Durant's award candidacy was fully on display when he got the better of LeBron in a head-to-head matchup to close January, leading USA Today's Sam Amick to write the following:
Entertaining though it may have been to slug it out with a fellow superstar, they didn't get their teams to this respective point by being singularly focused on scoring. So it was, then, that this mano-y-mano showdown only lasted so long. And in this season in which Durant's ability to be the rising tide that lift all boats is precisely why he may keep James from winning his fifth Maurice Podoloff trophy, he took part in something bigger than himself that was nothing short of astounding.
But the narrative can shift.
MVP candidacies go through a natural ebb and flow over the course of a season, and the favorite usually changes jerseys and appearances throughout the year. Durant may have overtaken LeBron early in the season and in rather definitive fashion at some points, but there's a lot of the season yet to be played.
And with his recent stretch, LeBron is leaving no doubt that he's not giving up on his chances for a fifth MVP.
At this stage of the 2013-14 campaign, the Warriors seem to be a nice punching bag for those vying for the league's premier individual award. Not only did they allow Durant to torch them for a career-high 54 points earlier in the season, but they were the unwilling recipients of LeBron's latest heroics.
During a 111-110 Miami victory that featured a massive comeback from Golden State, the reigning champion just couldn't be stopped.
In addition to inspiring disbelief from Joe Lacob, who is used to seeing stellar performances from Stephen Curry, LeBron posted 36 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists and two steals on the night, including the shot you can see below.
That was just the latest bucket in a string of heroics, as LeBron's only blemish down the stretch was a missed free throw that allowed Curry to give the Dubs a late lead on a floater. LeBron scored the team's last seven points—a triple with just under a minute that gave Miami a two-point lead, a free throw after driving in isolation and the game-winner.
Not too shabby, right?
After the game, James told B/R's Ethan Skolnick the following about his game-winner:
It's up there, man. It's up there. I mean, just the circumstances of the game, and to be able to come through for my teammates. I always want to come through for them.
Obviously, I'm not going to be successful all the time, but to be able to deliver for them tonight, man, it meant everything. Send those guys off into the All-Star break on the right note.
Well, the overall outing is only par for the course in recent days.
Over his last five games, LeBron is averaging 28.2 points, 9.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game while shooting 50 percent from the field. And that includes the aberration against the Utah Jazz, when he could only muster up 13 points during a loss that featured Utah hitting contested jumper after contested jumper.
It's not the numbers that are significant here so much as the timing.
When has an MVP been awarded solely for the first half of the season?
Generally, it's the stretch run that matters most, and that's for a couple of reasons. The recency effect, a psychological principle claiming we're more easily able to remember the near past than the distant past, comes into play for voters, and the second half of the season is usually thought of as holding more weight.
Even though every game counts the same in the final standings, the last contests in a season are usually higher-leverage outings.
So while Durant clearly trumped LeBron during the first half of 2013-14, it's not too late for the reigning MVP to retain his award. As B/R's Thomas Duffy writes, "In other words, James needs to do something special—something that will make people reflect on 2014 and say, 'Oh, that was the year LeBron (fill in the blank).'"
In 2012-13, it was a 27-game stretch of undefeated basketball that left no doubt about Miami's supremacy. While it's hard to fathom a repeat of that, the Heat actually aren't all that far off last season's pace.
They're right on it, in fact.
Last year's Heat were 37-14 through the first 51 games of the season. This year's boast an identical record thanks to LeBron's heroics against Golden State.
Now he has the momentum heading into the All-Star break, and he's leaving no doubt that he isn't giving up on anything during the regular season. While you can make a serious case for the Heat coasting during the first half, it doesn't seem as though LeBron will do that during the second.
Like any apex predator, he recognizes when he has an opportunity to strike.
With Westbrook soon to return to the OKC lineup, taking away from Durant's ability to post monster lines, the stage belongs to LeBron, especially if Dwyane Wade continues to have health problems and miss games.
"I was going for the win the whole time," James told the Associated Press after his dagger against the Warriors, via ESPN.
Is that all he was going for?
Durant is still the deserving favorite in the individual race, but LeBron is beginning his charge. One game obviously isn't enough to swing the balance, but this is just the latest in a string of stellar performances.
Don't expect that to stop anytime soon. Buckle up your seatbelts, because this is going to be one hell of a second-half race for MVP.