Clash of the B-ball Titans

James and Durant could spark the emergence of something the NBA could desperately use — an old-fashioned superstar rivalry

The NBA All-Star game has come and gone. Ho-hum. But there is a mid-season game I actually am looking forward to – on Thursday, February 20, when Miami plays Oklahoma City.

Not only is it a marquee match-up of two of the league's best teams, and a potential preview of the championship series, but it also brings together the league's two best players, Miami's LeBron James and OKC's Kevin Durant.

James and Durant are by far the leading candidates for the league's most valuable player award this season, and I'm hoping that Thursday's game will spark the emergence of something the NBA could desperately use — an old-fashioned superstar rivalry.

Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain set the Olympian standard for rivalries in the 1960s. But there really hasn't been a great basketball rivalry since Larry Bird of the Celtics battled Magic Johnson of the Lakers for both individual honors and championships in the 1980s. As great as Michael Jordan was, he never had to test himself year after year against another equally great player who was his contemporary and wanted to win and be successful as much he did. Same with Kobe Bryant.

And the game is the poorer for it, especially because the regular season is such a long, largely meaningless slog.

The 2013-14 season underscores the point. Eight teams from each conference — out of 15! — make the playoffs. But in the East, barring catastrophic injuries or a surprising collapse, it's already clear at mid-season that Indiana and Miami are the best teams, and will likely face each other in the conference finals.

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What are fans supposed to care about with 30 games left to play? Whether Toronto or Chicago finishes third? Whether a team with a losing record makes the playoffs or not? The only real suspense is whether the Heat or the Pacers has a better record to gain home court advantage when and if they play each other. Hope you can stand the excitement.

Yes, the West is much better this year and all eight teams who get in the playoffs will be pretty good, although OKC appears to be pulling ahead of the field — even without their injured star point guard, Russell Westbrook.

Still, at least five teams have absolutely no chance to make the playoffs. And even if you know your team is going to get in, how much do you really care if they're seeded fourth or sixth?

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A real rivalry would give the game a badly needed spark — and basketball is fortunate because unlike football and baseball, rivals can go at each other head to head for the whole game on offense and defense.

Durant and James are perfectly poised for the roles. They're contemporaries and they're both going to be in the Hall of Fame. They can guard each other, and they're both prolific scorers, as well as being extraordinarily skilled in all other aspects of the game.

They are also both extremely competitive. James, 29, has already won two championship rings (including one against Oklahoma City two years ago, when Durant was only 23 and not as good as he is now) and wants more — ideally five more — to surpass Jordan.

This year, Durant has emerged as a complete player and desperately wants to win his first championship — a desire manifested by his eye-popping, off-the-charts play so far this season.

It's unfortunate that James and Durant will only face each other twice during the regular season. But if a hard-fought rivalry is established now, it will lay the groundwork for a possible championship match-up that could draw comparisons to Russell and Chamberlain, and Bird and Magic.

Unlike most of the regular season, that would be very much worth watching.


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