LeBron, Durant, Rivalries And Finally Getting What We Want
Every time I mention just how great Michael Jordan was, some one from the shadows emerges and spits out some rhetoric about how he never played anyone. While I think that notion is a complete farce, I will say that we only got to see Jordan play Magic in The Finals just once. Mike played some of the biggest names and greatest players in The Finals but we never credit him for guiding his Bulls past Magic, Drexler, Barkley, Payton, Kemp, Stockton, Malone and the countless other Hall of Famers he beat throughout the playoffs. People don’t give Jordan credit for “beating anyone” because we never thought any of these were ideal match ups. Jordan never had a rival in the Finals, perhaps because he completely eclipsed everyone he played against and has altered our memories of just how great his opponents were. Or perhaps because we never got to see him battle it out in a ‘sexy’ match up.
How great would it have been to see Jordan battle with Reggie Miller for the title, or go against Iverson. If we could, we’d completely alter the schematics of the NBA to have The Bulls meet the Pistons, Knicks and Pacers in the Finals throughout the 90’s, but we can’t. What if Kobe had gotten a chance to face off with Mike? We’d still be writing stories about it. To no fault of his own, Jordan’s era came and went without us ever getting his own version of Bird & Magic.
Rivalries are part of the game and we long for them. We search them out and we hope and pray that we see on the biggest stage. The origins of these desires can be traced back to the Celtics and the Lakers. For decades, even before Bird and Magic duked it out in the 80’s, the Celtics and the Lakers gave us Russell and Wilt and Havlicek and West.
Since Bird & Magic, we’ve tuned in aimlessly hoping our fandom can manipulate the outcome of the playoffs and give us another great rivalry. We got a taste of Shaq and Hakeem, but that ended briefly and then became an impossibility when Shaq switched Conferences. We never got to see Garnett and Duncan on the biggest stage, one that might have determined who the greatest Power Forward of all-time was. Kobe has spent his entire career shadowboxing amateurs. Shaq’s biggest rivalries came in Conference Finals. oddly enough, most of the best rivalries take place there. Perhaps it’s because the seeds are planted in conference play and blossom in the playoffs thanks to familiarity and hatred, but the Conference Finals have always given us better rivalries than the Finals. Bulls/Pistons, Bulls/Knicks, Lakers/Kings, Lakers/Spurs, Celtics/76ers, Celtics/Bulls, Suns/Spurs and that long list goes on and on. Anyone of these series can be found on NBAtv but it just doesn’t taste the same as a true Finals rivalry. Imagine the pandemonium we would have seen if Kobe played LeBron instead of Dwight. It would have been a sports feast for the ages. But getting there is harder than it seems. 30 teams, and only 2 teams make it.
The hardest thing to do in sports is win a championship. First you got to get there, and as we’ve seen with so many great players, getting there is a journey itself. To get there more than once is an accomplishment many rarely see. To have the two best in the game make it in the same year is rarer still. And for those two to play the same position? A true gift from the basketball gods.
What we have right now is the best possible situation for the NBA and for sports fans across the globe. LeBron and Durant are as polar opposite as they get and at the same time very similar. Both of them have other-worldly athleticism. They are both Small Forwards. They are both mega-stars. Many believe LeBron is the vilest man in the league. Many of those same people believe that Durant is as pure as distilled holy water. One of them is a 3-time scoring champion, the other is a 3-time MVP. One has the scoring prowess of #23, the other has the complete package like Magic. We hate LeBron for being arrogant and egotistical, yet no one will argue that he makes everyone he plays with better. We applaud Durant for being such a great teammate, but we’re in awe of his hero-ball. We believe that one of them has a Superteam, the other just so happens to have Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka. The clutch and the anti-clutch, or the perceptions of it.
I’m not sure we could have hand-picked a better match-up, not even with black magic and a time machine. These two were meant to clash and they finally will. And when they have to guard each other during the final minutes of a close game, it will seem as if all other life has stopped, time will slow and LeBron and Durant will exist in a vacuum, playing in their own bubble of basketball. The game within the game. We can only hope we’re blessed enough to see such a sight. Not one, not two, not three, but in all seven games. Narratives will collide, sports writers will faint, fans will forget that the economy is collapsing. For those few possessions, everything on the court will live under a microscope. We will document, dissect and discuss every dribble, every shot and every defensive stop. Turnovers will lose games, shots will win them. Mistakes will cost jobs and outcomes will cement themselves at the forefront of our memories.
I’m not rooting for one team or the other. I have no horse in this race and I’m thankful for that. I encourage everyone to step back and view these games as fans of the sport, not of the teams or players. There will be no winners or losers when it’s all said and done because we’re all privileged to finally get what we’ve always wanted, the perfect rivalry.