The warm-up act is over. Time for the main event. And the curtain opens in Oklahoma City.
Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James. Thunder vs. Heat. Hunters vs. Hunted. And it lands in our lap Thursday night with the NBA's latest great individual rivalry.
LeBron/Carmelo. LeBron/Kobe. Michael Jordan/take your pick (Clyde Drexler, Dominique Wilkins, Isiah Thomas). All have tried and failed to match the great Magic/Bird or Wilt/Russell rivalries of yesteryear.
Now Durant/LeBron takes its swing. And the latest installment is at Chesapeake Arena, with TNT ready to give America what it wanted in the All-Star Game but had no hope of getting: a Durant/LeBron referendum.
The All-Star Game, which annually provides all the entertainment value of trampoline dunkers, is in the rearview mirror. Which is the best place for it.
Now we can hone in on real basketball. The NBA's stretch run. The playoffs. The Finals. The victory parade on Biscayne Boulevard or along the San Antonio Riverwalk or, be still our heart, the Bricktown Canal.
The All-Star Game provided a good stage to talk about the rivalry between the planet's two best players.
But LeBron wanted no part of such a script. He's a wise man. In the same way that LeBron avoids the all-star dunk contest because he's got everything to lose and nothing to gain, LeBron let the all-star plot wither. He'll save the drama for when whistles blow and defense matters.
Durant seemed willing to tango — even said so Friday during all-star interviews, hinting that a few mano-mano minutes in New Orleans wouldn't hurt anybody — and didn't completely lose the hard edge even when LeBron declined to participate.
Durant even barked at the refs a time or two in the first half Sunday night, when otherwise seldom was heard a discouraging word. And Durant seemed more intent on an all-star statement, though both superstars took 14 first-half shots.
Durant finished with monster numbers (38 points on 14-of-27 shooting, 10 rebounds and six assists). LeBron had 22 points on 11-of-22 shooting, seven rebounds and seven assists. LeBron never showed interest in being drawn into a duel.
LeBron is a two-time NBA champ, but uneasy lies the head that wears the crowns. The Thunder has taken dead aim at the Heat; a 112-95 rout in Miami three weeks ago served notice that OKC doesn't plan to be the easy prey it was two Junes ago in the Finals.
And Durant has taken dead aim at LeBron. The elevation of Durant's game, from already vaunted heights, since Russell Westbrook's surgery the day after Christmas has some pundits putting Durant and LeBron in the same breath.
The MVP award seems headed Durant's way. But that's a mere consolation prize if the Thunder doesn't dethrone the Heat.
For Durant/LeBron to enter Magic/Bird territory, both sides have to win. That's the bigger hurdle than sheer volume of showdowns.
I know you won't believe it, but Bird and Magic met only three times in the NBA Finals. We remember the '80s as an annual Laker-Celtic cotillion, but only in 1984 (Boston), 1985 (LA) and 1987 (LA) did Larry Bird and Magic Johnson meet in the Finals.
Durant and LeBron are a third of that way already.
Do regular-season meetings matter? More for the Thunder. Having lost six straight to Miami after Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals, the Thunder needed a victory and got it on Jan. 29. A second victory would fortify OKC confidence even more, and whet the appetite for another Thunder-Heat Finals, as serious basketball returns to the NBA.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.