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LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant matchup is unrivaled in today’s NBA

It has the potential to grow into the best the league has seen since Magic versus Bird

OAKLAND, California — Bill Russell versus Wilt Chamberlain was the NBA’s first notable player rivalry. Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird was the NBA’s best player rivalry, as it was a fight for championships, sparked race discussions, made the NBA respected as a league and even garnered a video game. Michael Jordan’s rival was everyone in his path. Kobe Bryant’s biggest rival was his own teammate in Shaquille O’Neal.

When it comes to NBA player rivalries of today, LeBron James versus Kevin Durant is a real one and has the potential to grow into the best the league has seen since Magic versus Bird.

“We have mutual respect,” Durant told The Undefeated after his Golden State Warriors’ 99-92 win over James’ Cleveland Cavaliers on Christmas Day. “We are both going to battle. He’s going to hit you a few plays. You’re going to hit him a few plays. There is not a clear-cut dominating guy.

“I’m not going to just go out there and destroy him. He’s not going to just wipe me off the map. It’s just two guys going … and trying to win. It’s much bigger than us two. We just happen to guard each other.”

The man nicknamed “King James” has truly sat on the NBA throne for years now without much of a true rival at his position.

Bryant is gone. Warriors guard Stephen Curry tried to snatch James’ crown as the league’s most popular player, but a rivalry between the two is tough to develop since they don’t play the same position and are so different in size. A rivalry between James and Carmelo Anthony didn’t develop into what many NBA followers dreamed it could be when they were drafted first and third, respectively, in 2003.

James has three NBA championships, has been to the Finals every year since 2011 and has widely been considered the best player in the world for years. But during the 2017 NBA Finals, the basketball world under his rule began to shift. Durant nailed a game-winning jumper in Game 3 in Cleveland that gave the Warriors a 3-0 lead. Durant ended up winning NBA Finals MVP honors as the Warriors went on to defeat James and the Cavaliers 4-1 for Durant’s first NBA championship. Durant also avenged a loss to James and the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals when Durant was with Oklahoma City.

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Durant already was respected as an eight-time NBA All-Star and 2014 NBA MVP. But with that championship and stellar Finals play (averaging 35.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.6 blocks), Durant unapologetically feels like he now walks alongside James or any superstar in the league.

“Once you do it for 10 years, win a championship and Finals MVP … I’m at a high level with my play and my skills. I feel like my peers and every coach can’t forget that I’m out there,” Durant said. “I feel that way when I’m playing. I feel that way when I’m talking to fans. I feel that way when I’m talking to friends. I feel like I’m in that [elite] group. You can’t tell me otherwise. I know [James] knows that over there and the rest of the guys in the league know that too. That’s just how I feel.

“I’m not saying that [James] passed me a torch and he’s wiped out, he’s gone, I just kicked him out. … I just feel as though I’m in the same room.”

So does James feel the same way?

James acknowledged his respect for Durant is strong and he poses a challenge. The 13-time NBA All-Star also noted that San Antonio Spurs All-Star Kawhi Leonard also poses a unique challenge at small forward. Leonard and the Spurs, however, have not been to the NBA Finals since 2014. The quiet Leonard showed some previously unseen humor and personality in his new Foot Locker commercial. But while Leonard has game on the same level of James and Durant, he has been plagued by injuries since last year’s playoffs, doesn’t have the same social media following, doesn’t speak about the world’s issues like James and Durant have in recent years and probably couldn’t care less about all of that while suiting up in small-market San Antonio.

With all due respect to Leonard, Durant’s star on and off the court is James’ biggest rival.

“He’s right up there, if not the best,” James said about the challenge that Durant poses him. “Kawhi is up there. Russ [Westbrook]. James [Harden]. It’s a pretty long list. It’s kind of the same position with me and K.D. being small forwards with Kawhi. We do a great job of going at it.”

While Durant is confident in his walk in the NBA, he wouldn’t go as far as saying he is the league’s best player. The thought of such a debate seemed disrespectful to the NBA greats of today and yesteryear.

“We all bring different things to the game,” Durant said. “I never look at it like, ‘Who is the best player?’ Michael Jordan was the first player that the masses started to love as a basketball player. There were guys after that. But we add different aspects to the game. We affect winning differently. That’s what it’s all about.

“Can you affect winning? And, every time you are on the court, is your team expected to win? You can say that about me, ’Bron, a bunch of guys in the league and those that played before us.”

Warriors coach Steve Kerr spoke in amazement about how James is a better player in his 15th season than he was in his 10th. Remember when James’ 3-point shooting was considered a weakness and he was considered too passive? Old news. There are no weaknesses in the 6-foot-8, 250-pounder’s game now.

Well, the same could be said about Durant, as he is now considered an elite defender. Durant entered Christmas second in the NBA in blocks per game with 2.21. The four-time NBA scoring champion had five blocks against the Cavaliers.

There is a perception that Draymond Green and the Warriors’ stifling way of playing defense grew on Durant when he arrived in the summer of 2016. Durant also had Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter swatting shots away in Oklahoma City. Durant believes he’s been a force on defense for a while and words to the contrary are a “lazy take.”

“I don’t think people ever watched me play,” Durant said. “They’ve only seen highlights and know that I’m 6-11 and I can shoot. But you never watched me play before, so it’s kind of shocking how I can guard, how I can pass and how I can make plays. I don’t have to just score all the time.

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“They just see me on TV more. If you come watch me play then you appreciate what I’ve brought to the game. … I’m not trying to be [LeBron] or Kobe or M.J. or anybody else. I just bring what I bring and I do it how I do it. Just come watch me always.”

James offered respect about Durant’s defense this season.

“He’s one of the leaders in shot blocks per game and had five tonight,” James said Monday. “He’s been doing a heck of, first of all, taking individual matchups and then protecting the rim too.”

The spotlight would have already been on James and Durant when they met on Christmas for the first time since the Finals. It was even brighter with All-Star point guards Curry and Isaiah Thomas being out for the Warriors and Cavaliers, respectively, through injury. Durant didn’t disappoint, as he tallied a team-best 25 points and 7 rebounds along with his 5 blocks. James responded with a team-high 20 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 7 turnovers.

This new rivalry also had a needed showdown in the end, as James went to the basket with Durant guarding him with the Warriors up 95-92 with 30 seconds left in the game. James believed that Durant fouled him twice on the drive. Durant begged to differ as he came away with a huge block that went out of bounds, with the ball initially awarded to the Cavaliers. After video review, the officials decided the ball went off James and it was Golden State’s ball. Durant and the Warriors held on to win.

The controversy adds to the growing rivalry.

“The overturned one he fouled me twice. Whatever. What are you going to do about it?” James said.

When told there was a Twitter debate about whether or not he fouled James, Durant said at his postgame news conference: “It felt clean. It’s probably the same play a bunch of those dudes on Twitter are probably arguing about in 24-Hour Fitness that it wasn’t a foul. They’ve been in that position before. But just not on Christmas or at Oracle Arena.

“So they know. They know if [the referees] didn’t call it it’s not a foul. But I’m sure if they get that call next week in 24-Hour Fitness they’re going to be pissed that it was called a foul, so keep that s— on Twitter.”

When the buzzer sounded, James and Durant respectfully hugged each other and exchanged words before heading to their opposing locker rooms. James still leads Durant in NBA championships, 3-1. But Durant has a Warriors team that is favored to win the NBA title again this season.

At the start of last season, James versus Durant was just two elite NBA small forwards playing against each another. Now, it means so much more. NBA championships are on the line. It’s the best player rivalry inside the NBA’s best team rivalry at the moment. With James in his prime, Durant is now his biggest nemesis.

It’s a beautiful rivalry between two superstar forwards with personalities to boot. NBA fans should enjoy it just like they did Magic versus Bird.

“It’s always love. It’s bigger than basketball,” Durant said. “We are both playing against each other on Christmas. We can be at home in front of our families right now. It’s something that you can’t just take for granted. I let him know that I appreciate the competition. I’m just sharpening my game and watching him from afar to see what is going on with him because he’s the guy I’m looking at.

“I’m not going to keep saying it. If you ask me how I feel about it, I’m not going to dance around it. I’m never going to dance around how I feel about LeBron James. It’s just basketball. It’s a mutual battle and respect. I know what he’s done. I’m going to continue to keep growing and doing better.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.