Has Kevin Durant overtaken LeBron James as the best player in the NBA?


Jan 29, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) pumps his fist as Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) walks back to the bench during the second half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

One of my favorite sports movies is The Fighter. In particular, I love the moment at the end when Mark Wahlberg’s character is about to win the last fight in the movie. He’s finally getting over a hurdle in his career that was a long time coming. During the moments when we start to know Wahlberg is going to win the fight, you can hear his brother, Christian Bale, screaming in the background, “This is it! This is it!”

I tweeted that last night early in the fourth quarter during a sequence where Kevin Durant continued to score on LeBron James as the Thunder were running away with the game that they would end up winning 112-95. It felt like that kind of moment. Like Durant was taking another leap in his career. A leap that perhaps propelled him past LeBron.

To be completely fair and honest, last night’s game was far from a one-on-one game between Durant and LeBron. It wasn’t even a game in which whoever of the two players played better, their team won. It was a weird game. The Thunder fell behind so drastically in the opening minutes 22-4 (while Kendrick Perkins was playing), and then came back thanks largely to 16 made three-pointers, the most ever made since the move to OKC.

The most fun portion of the game was at the end of the third when KD and LeBron were going right at each other and exchanged multiple made jump shots. In those minutes, they were showing us that neither could really stop the other. And throughout most of the game, that was also the case. They kind of cancelled each other out statistically. Durant finished with 33-7-5 while LeBron posted 34-3-3 and both were over 50 percent shooting from the field.

So why does it still feel like Durant may be passing LeBron as the best player in the NBA? Why does last night feel like it was some sort of milestone for Durant in that regard?

In head-to-head matchups against LeBron, Durant had lost 13 of 16 heading into last night. The Thunder had lost their last six games vs. Miami, including the final four in a row of the 2012 Finals. Over the last two years, the Heat have appeared to be the perfect foil for the Thunder. Dating back even longer, it looked like LeBron might be the perfect foil for Durant.

LeBron has been one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA for years now and he is one of the most ridiculous athletes of all time. What makes him so good is unsurprisingly his physicality. He can body up players with ease as they try and work the baseline to come off a screen. He’s quick enough to stay in front of them and all of these things add up to LeBron barely ever being called for fouls. He’s exactly the kind of defender you would build to defend Durant.

Durant has always had a hard time getting into a rhythm against LeBron and defenders like him (Ron Artest back in the 2010 playoffs is another example). They make it hard for Durant to catch the ball where he wants it. They can be quick enough to force Durant into settling for more jump shots, turning the ball over when he tries to drive, and getting Durant to try and search for bail out foul calls instead of trying to simply make shots when he penetrates.

The first five times Durant and LeBron went head-to-head, LeBron was on the Cavaliers getting into his prime and Durant was in just the first three seasons of his career, still very slim and not nearly the player he is today. In those five games, Durant’s team went 0-5 while he averaged 25.2 points, 1.6 assists and 3.6 turnovers per game, shooting 45.3 percent from the field. LeBron: 29.6 points, 6.2 assists, 2.8 turnovers, 52.9 percent from the field.

After the NBA lockout and LeBron’s arrival in Miami, Durant finally got his first win. The Thunder and Heat went 2-2 in their four games before the 2012 NBA Finals. Durant averaged 30 points, 4.5 assists and 3.8 turnovers while shooting 50 percent from the field. LeBron: 23.3 points, 8.3 assists, 2.8 turnovers, 45.2 percent from the field.

In the NBA Finals, which OKC lost 4-1, Durant went for 30.6 points, 2.2 assists and 3.8 turnovers per game on 54.8 percent shooting. LeBron: 28.6 points, 7.4 assists, 3.8 turnovers, 47.2 percent from the field.

Last season in two meetings, both of which were won by the Heat, Durant averaged 36.5 points, 3.5 assists and 4.5 turnovers while shooting 51.1 percent from the field. LeBron: 34.0 points, 8.0 assists, 3.5 turnovers, 59.1 percent from the field.

What we are seeing in this matchup through the years is Durant’s numbers progressively getting better vs. LeBron. LeBron put up huge numbers in his days for Cleveland against a much worse OKC squad. There was some adjusting when LeBron got to Miami but he had a great NBA Finals. And last year, LeBron was at his best ever and the numbers show that, too.

Last night, it was again much tougher for Durant than in any other matchup as far as I could tell. LeBron did a good job making Durant work to get touches. Overall, there was much less flow to the Thunder’s offense. Durant was doubled when handling the ball every time in the pick-and-roll and every time, he passed to the roll man when this happened. It wasn’t until Durant got some opportunities in transition and went one-on-one at LeBron that he started to score.

LeBron got a foul call on Durant late in the first to give Durant two fouls in the game. Durant didn’t defend LeBron too much after that as Thabo Sefolosha did so quite a bit and Perry Jones did for much of the second half. The Heat were out of sync in general, missing a lot of open shots, turning the ball over uncharacteristically and not getting back on defense.

This was not a game where Durant outplayed LeBron and that’s why the Thunder won. But it was one of the most complete games KD has had vs. LeBron. And when Miami needed LeBron to stop Durant on his own, he couldn’t. For the past two years now, it’s been hard for LeBron to stop Durant on his own every time, but he’s always been able to do the best job of that. Last night, it felt like he really had no chance considering how well Durant has it going on this month and this season.

I take away more from last night’s game when it has to do with the Thunder. They needed to eliminate that mental block they had in this matchup vs. Miami. Even though they won big, it was still so much harder for them to get offense vs. the Heat than in any other game this season in my opinion. But the Thunder are still talented enough to win an ugly game like last night vs. the Heat, when they are not at their best. It was great for OKC.

The poise and confidence that Durant showed was some of the best he has when going head-to-head vs. LeBron. It was tough for Durant early, but he was patient and eventually found a way to get his. He finished with five assists but could have had many more if Serge Ibaka had shot better and others knocked down some open shots.

For whatever reason, LeBron was not able to take over this game when the Heat needed him to. When he started trying to at the end of the third, Durant was more than up to the challenge, answering all of his punches. Maybe LeBron and the Heat are still coasting because it’s the regular season and that is entirely understandable, but you definitely thought the Heat were going to be especially up for this matchup.

It seems like it’s the team success as much as anything as to why it feels like Durant is beginning to pass LeBron. That is kind of fair I think because one of the greatest things about LeBron throughout his career is how much his teams have won. Durant and the Thunder have been without Westbrook since Christmas, but they still have the best record in the NBA and they are 4-0 against the two teams who played for the NBA championship last season.

Durant is playing at a level better than anyone else in the league right now. Maybe that will change and he will cool off. Maybe even if he does cool off, he will still be putting up numbers better than anyone, even LeBron.

I don’t know for sure if Durant passed LeBron last night or if it even works like that. It’s really much more complex. But what I do know is that LeBron tried to stop Durant, the hottest player in the NBA, and he had no chance of doing so. Durant and the Thunder are good enough to be better than the Heat on any given night and probably better overall throughout a season as well. There’s still a lot to prove for OKC and KD and we won’t really have an answer to who is better between Durant and LeBron until the end of this season, and maybe not even then.