"There can only be one."
Perhaps you remember the legendary commercials with split faces that featured this saying, which was in reference to the pursuit of an NBA Finals victory. But in this case, the five-word slogan only matters for two players—LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
Durant may have just won the league's MVP award—and given an unforgettable and passionate acceptance speech—but he hasn't cemented his claim to league-wide alpha-dog status. Not when LeBron is still alive and fighting for a third championship in a row.
There can only be one.
And while Durant battles it out with a Los Angeles Clippers squad that should be favored to win over his Oklahoma City Thunder, LeBron has the perfect launching pad to reclaim his unquestioned status as the NBA's premier alpha dog.
Of course, the previous statement presupposes that Durant snatched it from him during the regular season. That's not the crux of this argument, so if you don't believe that ever happened, read the previous paragraph and the article's headline as LeBron solidifying his alpha-dog status.
Unnoticed Domination in Round 1
I can't blame you for failing to notice just how excellent LeBron was during the Miami Heat's first-round beatdown of the Charlotte Bobcats.
After all, nearly every other series was memorable. The Washington Wizards and Portland Trail Blazers were the only other teams to advance without the aid of a Game 7, and the Donald Sterling drama captivated the basketball world (and beyond) for the better part of a week.
Why should the average fan watch Miami-Charlotte when the Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder were determined to convince the NBA audience that overtime should be included in every game? Why should the typical basketball watcher spend time focusing on the Heat when the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors were making a case to overshadow the Atlanta Hawks' near-upset of the Indiana Pacers?
If I had to rank every first-round series in terms of entertainment value, the one we're discussing here would be lapped by the field. But that doesn't mean LeBron's dominance should just be taken for granted.
|James vs. the 'Cats|
His worst performance came in Game 1, when he shot "only" 50 percent from the field and recorded "only" 27 points, nine rebounds and one assist.
Man, LeBron was awful that night.
All told, the no-longer-reigning MVP averaged 30 points, eight rebounds, six assists and 2.3 steals per game while shooting 55.7 percent from the field, 35 percent beyond the arc and 79.5 percent at the charity stripe. Basketball-Reference.com calculates his game score—a box-score measure devised by John Hollinger that roughly estimates the productivity in any one game—at 26.3.
To put that in perspective, there have been just 21 games recorded during this postseason that received game scores of that magnitude, and three of them belong to James himself. With 54 playoff games played heading into the May 7 action and five starters per game, that's 265 opportunities that starters not named LeBron had to produce higher game scores than James' average.
Again, that's higher than his average performance from the first-round series, which was dragged down by a relatively lackluster opening game.
Oh, and that doesn't factor in James doing this against Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's tough defense while completely shutting down whomever he was matched up against.
Is it any wonder he featured prominently on Bleacher Report featured columnist Kelly Scalleta's All-NBA Playoff Team for Week 2? As Scaletta wrote, "LeBron James of the Miami Heat played up to his cyborgian standard last week," which isn't hyperbolic in the slightest.
But dominating the 'Cats is one thing. Doing the same against the Nets is much more important.
Bitter Rivalry in Round 2
In Game 1, LeBron's tour of destruction continued.
He finished the blowout victory with 22 points, five rebounds and three assists—a disappointing final line by his lofty standards—but the way he accumulated those numbers was ridiculously impressive. Whether he was shooting jumpers or driving into the lane, he couldn't miss, finishing 10-of-15 from the field and knocking down both tries from the free-throw line.
And defensively, he made life miserable for Paul Pierce, who finished with eight points on eight shots.
"We have a new MVP [Kevin Durant] but when you talk about the best players in the world, [James] is 1A or 1B, with Durant," Brooklyn head coach Jason Kidd said after the game, via NBA.com's Zachary Paul. Clearly, LeBron had earned the respect of his opponent after the opening salvo of what should be a competitive series.
But let's take a step back and look at the context.
The Heat and the Nets squared off four times throughout the regular season—granted, two of those games came without Dwyane Wade in the lineup—and the result was a sweep. Not for the Heat, mind you, but for the Nets.
Brooklyn just seemed to be a veteran team that had Miami's number. That, combined with the Pacers' fall from grace, resulted in the Nets being viewed as potentially the biggest challenger to the three-peat efforts.
LeBron obviously didn't think so, though, even after he was rejected at the rim by Mason Plumlee in the final seconds of the last regular-season meeting.
Nonetheless, the relationship between these two elite teams has always been a bit testy, starting with LeBron calling out Pierce and Kevin Garnett for jumping ship to Brooklyn after they criticized Ray Allen for leaving the Boston Celtics for South Beach just one year earlier, per ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst.
"I think the first thing I thought was, 'Wow, Ray got killed for leaving Boston, and now these guys are leaving Boston,'" LeBron said. "I think it's OK; I didn't mind it. But there were a couple guys who basically [expletive] on Ray for leaving, and now they're leaving."
More recently, after a hard-fought series during the portion of the season that only kind of matters, James elaborated on his feelings about his rivals.
"You see them so much, there's really nothing to hide," the four-time MVP said, via Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today. "They know my tendencies, I know their tendencies, their likes and dislikes and vice versa. It should be very challenging."
But he's not the only one doing the talking.
Though Pierce acknowledged that the rivalry stops when they leave the court and doesn't invade their personal lives, he did admit to ESPNNewYork.com's Ohm Youngmisuk that there's a strong individual competitiveness between the two:
I think it is more of a basketball thing. We are aiming for the same prize and only one of you can get it, you know?
I mean, it's going to be a dislike there. That's nothing that has carried over off the court. I think everything -- the dislike for me, LeBron, or Miami or Cleveland -- it's all based on what we are both chasing, and that is about it.
How can this series not be intense? How can it not carry extra weight?
Including this set of games, LeBron has squared off with the Pierce-Garnett duo five times in the past seven years, and this is serving as the deciding series in a best-of-five affair.
While the Bobcats boasted a strong defense, the Nets are a strong team. They're tailored to stop LeBron and the rest of the Heat, which gives him the perfect springboard to reassert himself as the NBA's one and only premier alpha dog.
His domination in this series should and will be seen in a different light, especially if the Heat continue their march toward a three-peat.
There are two players standing atop the NBA—Kevin Durant and LeBron James.
But by the time the postseason wraps up, there can only be one.
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