Throughout the first half of this season, Kevin Durant has widely been discussed as the player most deserving of receiving the league’s Most Valuable Player award.
While Durant has been largely spectacular, those championing his cause may have neglected to consider one simple fact: LeBron James hasn’t exactly gotten worse, and in fact, may still be far and away the league’s best player.
James asserted himself against Durant’s Thunder from the opening tip on Thursday, scoring 16 of his 33 points in a blistering first quarter on Durant’s home floor that left little doubt as to where the MVP should ultimately reside. Miami cruised to a 103-81 victory, as James continued a personal assault that has now lasted four straight games.
LeBron finished with 33 points on 22 shots, to go along with seven rebounds, three assists and four steals. But it was that first quarter performance that knocked the Thunder on their heels, and struck doubt into their hearts.
When James puts forth maximum effort, it’s a scary site for opponents that is essentially impossible to stop. In this one, he scored his team’s first 12 points, and was active on the defensive end at the same time, creating steals that led to run-outs in transition.
It was really no different than what we’ve seen from James since the two contests before the All-Star break, where he’s clearly stepped up his game in order to help his team prepare for the postseason with a second half push. He scored 37 and 36 respectively in Phoenix and Golden State, before following up those efforts with a 42-point outing in Dallas immediately after the All-Star break.
The first quarter in Oklahoma City, however, was meant to make a statement.
James has heard all season long that Durant was the MVP, and there was no better time than in OKC on national television to let everyone know he wasn’t ready to concede that distinction. There’s no other way to explain the way he dominated from the jump, and was so visibly upset when a long three-point attempt — his sixth shot of the game — was the first of the night that he saw rim out.
LeBron wanted this one, or at the very least, he wanted to make sure he performed at his highest level if his team was going to end up with a loss. But his highest level almost makes that an impossibility.
Durant was fine in finishing with 28 points, and Russell Westbrook returned from injury to chip in a rusty 16 on 4-of-12 shooting. But when LeBron is this locked in, the only thing that can stop him is injury, and even then, he’ll still likely end up scoring.
James took a shot to the face that left him bloodied with under six minutes remaining, but managed to finish the dunk on the play where the contact occurred nonetheless.
Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were spectacular for the Heat as well, and that’s been the strength of this Miami team through back-to-back championship seasons. But it all started with LeBron, and his dominating first quarter effort that had MVP written all over it.