Durant outshines LeBron, takes MVP lead


OKLAHOMA CITY
– LeBron James smiled and laughed and talked about the time he and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant shared during the past offseason.

James affectionately called the week-long workout session where the two went at it hard, twice a day, “Hell Week.”

James ought to know. He’s been living his own version for a lot longer.

Sunday, the two came together for the first time this season and Durant outplayed his friend, going for 28 points, nine rebounds and a season-best eight assists, shifting the MVP race in his favor. James wasn’t as physical and wasn’t a factor in the 103-87 Thunder victory over Miami.

Before the two guarded each other, they shared a hug. These days they share even more. No two players may be more similar and have more in common. Yet when contrasted, James has developed into the NBA’s most-talked about, love-him-or-hate-him kind of player while Durant has avoided confrontation and any sort of polarizing effect.

Maybe that’s why James reached out to Durant in the offseason, telling Durant to come and stay with him in Ohio, work out with his personal coaches and trainers, and as James put it, “Get better.” But maybe James did it to find out how Durant operates and spend some time learning about how Durant has managed to stay unquestionably likeable by everyone.

“It was the toughest we’ve had with workouts,” James said. “We got a lot out of it.”

A likeable Golden Child in Cleveland, James and his image took a punch when the Cavaliers were swept in the 2007 NBA Finals and it went off the grid when James announced his intentions to change teams. And it was kicked once more when James and the Heat fell to Dallas in last year’s Finals.

Now, James, still without an NBA title, is questioned after nearly every pass, shot or even the non-shots.

None of that is ever focused on Durant, despite the fact the Thunder star hasn’t accomplished nearly what James has and still toils without a title, too. So, why is James suffering while Durant’s name and game is soaring?

“I think a lot has to do with exposure,” said Heat forward Shane Battier. “LeBron has been in the public eye since he was 16, and when that happens, the public feels like they know everything about you. If things don’t go with the accordance of the way people see you, people get upset. So when he went to Miami, it was move that not a lot of people expected. It had a grinding effect. Tiger (Woods)  was exposed for so many years and did some things outside that perception people had and there was a definite grinding. That’s true for LeBron, too.”

What the public has seen with James is ill-timed arrogance. What the public has seen with Durant is humility.

James had a synthetic, made-for-television prime-time special when he decided to switch teams. James is @kingjames on Twitter and starred in a preseason extravaganza, equipped with fireworks when he and Chris Bosh joined Dwayane Wade in Miami.

In comparison, Durant took 140 characters on Twitter to announce a multimillion-dollar contract and took to the social media site during this past summer when he was looking for a flag football game to play.

“Any lingering resentment to James most likely stems from how he announced his decision to go to Miami and his initial celebration there,” ESPN announcer and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy said. “I don’t think anyone resents James for his game. That’s the media world we live in. It’s unfortunate. For people to pick him apart and say whether he’s worthy or not, and it’s our people (ESPN) a lot of the time doing it, is just foolishness.

Sunday in Oklahoma City, Durant played brilliantly and the crowd chanted “MVP.” Meanwhile, James was booed loudly when introduced and cheered even more loudly when he picked up a foul or missed a shot.

“I don’t see why,” Durant said of the animosity directed toward James. “The man made a decision he wanted to make. I don’t see why people don’t like him too much. But as far as us being compared, I don’t know why either.”

Durant just missed out on a triple-double while James didn’t compare, shooting just 8-for-18 and scoring 17 points. He had just three rebounds to go with his seven assists and also had four turnovers.

James calls Durant one of the league’s best, yet he also said the next evolution in Durant’s game will come from leadership, the same thing James is often criticized for.

“He’s continued to grow as a leader,” James said of Durant. “His game speaks for itself, and what he’s able to do with a basketball is something we don’t need to talk about. His numbers speak for themselves. He just needs to continue to grow as a leader. That’s what it’s about.”

Yet, it’s been James who has been questioned about leadership while Durant again has avoided any issues on the matter, diffusing possible problems with teammate and rising star Russell Westbrook. Maybe that’s why James reached out to Durant during the summer to spend some time with him, and maybe it was James who sought out the answers.

“We have a mutual respect for each other,” Durant said of James. “To work out with one of the best in the world, I couldn’t turn it down. We got better. It was something I learned a lot from.”

There was “Hell Week,” but there was also a flag football game. James set it up, putting his team against Durant’s in an offseason, for-fun game that once again brought about comparisons, but also helped strengthen their friendship.

“Our friendship started when he was in high school and carried on,” James said. “We have a great friendship and we respect what we do. It’s always great to see a friend do so well.”

Only now, who’s saying that about James?