Four-time MVP LeBron James is sweating.
Not because his scorching run with the Miami Heat has the potential to flame out if any (or all) of the Big Three exercises his opt-out clause over the offseason.
No, James is sweating because of the path that still lies ahead. He knows this race isn't over.
Not even close.
This isn't entirely foreign land, but it's been a while since James was looking up at anyone in the basketball world for any reason. Judging by his two-game sprint into the All-Star break—73 points, 22 rebounds, 12 assists, seven steals and one cold-blooded, game-winning triple—perhaps his place at the game's peak remains unchanged.
If it hasn't changed, though, it's at least been challenged. Consider his last two games as the first part of his response.
"LeBron is at his mountaintop now, with no assurance that pinnacle will rise yet higher," writes Greg Cote of the Miami Herald. "So why NOT flex a little? Why NOW, though, is the question, and that answer keeps getting back to Oklahoma City’s young phenom, Durant."
Durant, as in the three-time scoring champion (soon to be four) powering the league's best team despite not having his second-in-command, Russell Westbrook, around for 29 of OKC's 54 games so far.
His MVP credentials are more than legit. They're the best in the business so far.
But what does Durant need to do to keep from coughing up his on the 2013-14 campaign's back nine? And what must James do to sway the voters back in his favor over these next two months?
Plotting KD's Path to MVP Honors
If you're searching for Durant's defining moment this season, it's a pointless pursuit.
Sure, he's had some explosive outbursts. Throw a dart anywhere inside his "NBA 2K14 cheat code dominant 12-game, 30-point streak," as SportsOnEarth.com's Michael Pina called it, and you're sure to hit a gem.
Truth be told, you'd have a much harder time finding anything in his game log that doesn't strengthen his MVP case:
Durant just wrapped up MVP #TweetsFromEveryGame— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) February 9, 2014
KD has claimed both this campaign, pacing the league with a 30.92 PER (James is second with 28.95) and 13.75 win shares (James holds the No. 2 spot with 10.26).
Durant's biggest challenge now is to maintain that type of production—or something awfully close to it—when Westbrook returns to action.
Here's where Durant's newfound generosity (career-high 5.5 assists) can hurt him. Or help him, depending on voter perception.
There are no caution flags when Westbrook hits the track. He's pedal-to-the-floor aggressive, sometimes to a fault.
Westbrook's been sidelined since Dec. 25 recovering from his third knee surgery since April. In his absence, Durant has seen his numbers rise to mind-numbing levels: 35 points on .527/.399/.878 shooting, 7.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists.
Still, KD wants his running mate back at his side. Westbrook might be an unabashed gunner, but Durant still sees him as a vital piece to OKC's championship puzzle, via ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne:
Durant on Westbrook: "We don’t want him to play a little too passive because of how we’ve been playing. We want him to come in and be him"— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) February 14, 2014
Can Durant afford a statistical slide in the voters' eyes? If he starts posting numbers like he did in his first 28 games of the season—28.1 points on .490/.424/.886 shooting, eight rebounds, 4.8 assists—will that deal a fatal blow to his MVP campaign?
Not necessarily. If the Thunder maintain their position atop the league's totem pole, Durant could still be a best-player-on-the-best-team type of selection.
Any statistical regression would, however, leave open the possibility for James to reclaim his crown.
Considering this is the King we're talking about, that open door might feel more like the Grand Canyon.
James' Uphill Battle
Durant's ascension has been deservedly praised, but his rise up the MVP ranks has also benefited from an underlying theme.
The potential for greatness still exists in South Beach, probably more so there than anywhere, but the two-time defending champs and their Hall of Fame-bound leaders look a bit—dare I say—vulnerable.
No one's scoffing at the numbers. Nor should they.
But James hasn't just had difficulty catching Durant's pace, he's (slightly) struggled to meet his own standards.
Numbers never lie, as they say, but these do need a few disclaimers.
For starters, James is seeing the fewest minutes (37.4) of his career. It's a reduction based in logic on several fronts. Not only are the Heat playing for a purpose that lies well beyond the regular season, but we're also talking about a 29-year-old in his 11th NBA season.
Father Time waits for no one. Miami is protecting its investment, and that hasn't been James' call.
"I'm not playing as many minutes as I would like but Spo is in control of that," James said earlier this season, via ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst. "I don't like playing less, I don't feel like I need to play less."
The loss in quantity has also seen a rise in quality. James is shooting a career-best 57.1 percent from the field and scoring as many points per 36 minutes (25.5) as he did last season.
He's also been bitten by the injury bug a few times, battling back spasms, a sore ankle and a strained groin along the way.
James has, at times at least, shown he is actually human.
With 31 games left on Miami's schedule, though, those superpowers could return at any time:
So, just how good will those heroic showings need to be?
Well, some of this race will be determined by forces outside of his control.
He needs Miami to flick its proverbial switch, a task easier said than done given Dwyane Wade's shuffling in and out of the training room.
No one, James included, is going to catch Durant in the scoring race. Given KD's improvements as a distributor and defender, it will be tough for James to use these next two months to gain a significant statistical edge he doesn't already have.
If he's losing the race in the box scores and in the standings, that may be a two-tiered hurdle even he can't climb.
Remember, there's another factor possibly in play here—voter fatigue:
LeBron asked if it ever bothers him when others get more attention. Smiles. "That's what happens. Out with the old, in with the new."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) February 14, 2014
Something special needs to happen over these final two months for James to close the gap. Something people can hang their hats on when they step inside the voting booth.
It doesn't need to be a 27-game winning streak or six straight games of 30-plus points on 60-plus-percent shooting, but it may need to be something cut from a similar cloth.
Can he do it? Of course, he has more than enough entries in the history books to leave everything inside the realm of possibilities.
Will he, though? Well, that's quite another matter.
So, Who Wins This Race?
Betting against James is never easy.
Usually, you're better off just crumbling up your cash and tossing it out the window. At least then there's a chance of one day finding it again.
This feels different, though.
Who do you think will be crowned as this season's MVP?
This generation loves to anoint "The Next" in any conversation. James has been so good for so long, that his sustained success is actually now working against him.
That's not, however, the reason I think Durant will be the last man standing.
The narrative he's crafted over the first half of the season seems unbelievable even though I've seen it with my own eyes.
Last year, the Thunder lost Westbrook and almost immediately collapsed. This time around, they've built a stronger foundation than any other in the league.
KD is the reason OKC has not only survived Westbrook's absence, but thrived without him.
That's the definition of value. If that's the true criteria for this award, it's hard to see anyone other than Durant hoisting the hardware.