We’ve been waiting since Magic and Bird for a rivalry of the best. After Durant’s Warriors dethroned James’ Cavs, we might finally be there again.
Kevin Durant stood there motionless as he watched LeBron James celebrate his first title. He knew at that moment, James had what he wanted.
As fans of the game, we try and cultivate rivalries. Rarely we do we have the opportunity to see one come so agonizingly close to reality only to never reemerge.
We expected LeBron’s Heat to be there in the Finals every year. With the incredible nucleus of Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, there was no reason to believe the Thunder wouldn’t be there as well. All four of them were under 24 years old. The sky was the limit.
Those four would never get a chance to avenge their loss, however. Harden was gone before the next season started. From 2011-16, the Thunder would make it to the Western Conference Finals four times. Yet Durant’s only experience in the Finals was that loss in ’12 to the Heat. After last year’s 3-1 let down, Durant had to make his own “decision.”
“He’s the only person that I was looking at, since 2012, he’s the only one that I looked at, he’s the only guy that can look me eye to eye.”
Kevin Durant after clinching his first NBA championship.
Imagine signaling out your one true equal, and knowing until you faced him in the Finals again, no one outside of yourself would view you as contemporaries. What would that drive you to do? At some point, Durant came to the realization that whatever they had in Oklahoma City was not going to be enough to unseat the Warriors. If he wanted to thrust himself into the conversation, he would need to be champion. He would need to make an already great team, legendary.
As LeBron entered his seventh straight NBA Finals, the conversation surrounding him was whether or not he would surpass Michael Jordan as the Greatest of All Time. There was no denying his brilliance. Who was there to stop him?
Outside of the obvious statistical excellence and championship dominance Jordan achieved, the reason he is collectively viewed as the Greatest is because he had no equal. During the peak of his career from ’89-’98, there was no other player that could stand up to him without His Airness emphatically sitting them down.
The same could be said for LeBron. Much like Jordan in his peak, you could vote James MVP every year. Like Jordan, James appeared to have no rival.
At 6’9 270 pounds he can get to the rim whenever he wants. Many experts say, when James’ jumper is working, he is unstoppable. Never before have we seen someone like Durant, either. A 7-footer trapped in a shooting guard’s mentality. A perimeter player who has no weakness on offense. Durant may be unparalleled in his offensive skill-set. That was evident in his Finals MVP performance.
The only thing that used to separate them was James’ almost obligatory visits to the Finals each year. That has all changed.
In 1984, Larry Bird was still chasing Magic Johnson, but the rivalry was tangible. The two first met in the NCAA Championship back in 1979. Although each had won a title in the NBA–Magic with 2, Larry with 1–this was their first encounter in the Finals since Johnson’s Michigan State bested Bird’s Indiana State. When the Celtics won in seven, Bird quickly conjured up the burden he could finally release.
“I got him. I got him,” said Bird.
Not since the Magic and Larry rivalry have we been so blessed. The two best players in basketball set up for multiple championship encounters. The greatest of each generation; Jordan, Kobe, Tim Duncan, LeBron. They all lacked what Larry and Magic gave us. Until now.
KD knew this was his time. In the back of his mind 2012 was still a fresh memory.
“I knew it was going to be a battle. I was trying to challenge him, he averaged a damn triple double, can’t stop the guy. We battled. I told him we tied up now. We’re going to try and do this again, but I’m going to celebrate this one tonight.”
LeBron James is 32 with no signs of slowing down. Kevin Durant is 28 and now knows the sweet taste of victory. James has three titles, Durant has one. A rivalry is born and we have a chance to see it play out in the Finals year after year. We should take Durant’s cue, and celebrate.