To preview Wednesday’s monster midseason matchup, between Kevin Durant’s Thunder and LeBron James’ Heat, we asked three or our writers four pressing questions. Here were there responses:
1. Kevin Durant’s hold on the MVP race is _____________.
Darnell Mayberry (beat writer) - Firm. It’s his to lose at this point. And unless Durant goes down (knock on wood) or LeBron James averages a triple-double the rest of the season, Durant almost certainly will capture his first MVP trophy this season. He’s been that great.
Anthony Slater (beat writer) - Strengthening by the game. For someone to usurp LeBron — who is still playing at an elite level — voters needed to see some kind of legendary, ‘I have taken the next step’ kind of streak. I’d say Durant’s last couple weeks would qualify…That said, KD would trade this season’s award and a few more if you could promise him that he, and not LeBron, will be holding the bigger trophy come June. That’s when this season, and a potential ‘best player in the world’ debate will be defined.
Berry Tramel (columnist) - Tenuous. Durant’s the leader, but he’s not in the clubhouse. It’s a long season. Twenty games ago, Durant wasn’t the favorite. Now he is. Twenty games from now, who knows. But he’s been fabulous. And all things considered, voters are looking for a new face. So if it’s even, Durant will win.
2. What’s the biggest thing Kevin Durant does better than LeBron James?
Mayberry - Shooting. Durant is a better and purer shooter than James from everywhere outside the paint. And he’s a significantly better 3-point shooter and foul shooter, while also being more proficient from mid-range. Shooting is to Durant as size is to LeBron. It’s what makes them unstoppable. Durant’s touch and timing, at his size, makes him a threat to light you up at all times no matter where he is on the court.
Slater - Score. That’s what Durant was put on this Earth to do. He has the height (6-foot-11) of a center, the range of a shooting guard, the handles of a point guard and the offensive understanding of a coach. Unblockable shot, unguardable drive, unthinkable moves. Your life’s on the line tomorrow and, to save it, you have to pick one player to score on a group of super athletic Aliens who are holding you captive. You’re going with Kevin Durant. We all are.
Tramel - Well,I’d say clutch-time performance. I mean, Durant shoots better than does LeBron. But Durant can take over games, at least down the stretch, better than anyone.
3. What’s the one thing LeBron James does better than Kevin Durant?
Mayberry - Pass. Durant has taken a huge leap in that department this year. But it’s still not really close, and it’s the biggest thing that separates the two now that Durant’s defense has picked up. James is just a wonderfully gifted passer. He sees plays before they happen and has the rare ability at his size to get it to the open man on time and on target. For as much as a force as James is on the attack as a scorer, it’s not out of the question to think he’s every bit as dangerous, if not more, as a facilitator. He’s that good.
Slater - Hit that top tier. As a whole, Durant has become nearly as good a defender as LeBron. And he’s probably the best offensive player in the game. But LeBron has a certain gear that I’m not sure Durant (or anyone else) can physically reach. It’s that desperation, ‘we’re down six points with eight minutes left in a must-win Game 6′ level. It’s when he starts disrupting every play, blocking every other shot, getting to the rim at will and just, generally, playing at a quicker, stronger, more dominant level than anyone on the court is capable of containing. He did it against the Spurs last June. Did it against the Thunder two Junes ago. It’s why he has two rings.
Tramel - Defend. Durant has gotten much better on defense. But LeBron is all-world. The biggest difference between LeBron and Durant on offense is that LeBron never has to be guarded by LeBron.
4. Thunder or Heat: Who you got in a seven-game series when both teams are fully healthy?
Mayberry - Heat. I’ll believe the Thunder can beat those guys only when they start doing it. Until then, there’s no reason to think the Thunder has matured to the point it can win four out of seven games against Miami.
Slater - With Russell Westbrook, the Thunder was 21-4, playing the best basketball in the NBA. Without him, they’re still a stellar 15-6, on a league-best eight game win streak. So, with no knowledge of the past history, in a vacuum, I’d take healthy OKC over anyone this season. But knowing past history, knowing the potential matchup problems, knowing that ‘top-tier LeBron’ looms, knowing the Thunder has lost six straight to these guys, it’s Miami until proven otherwise.
Tramel - I’ll take Miami. Until the Thunder shows it can beat the Heat, I think you have to stay with Miami. But I’ll say this. The Thunder is better than it was two years ago. Miami is not as good.