KANSAS CITY, Mo. --- Such is the overstated scale of this Miami Heat team that a simple exhibition game can become a litmus test of who will be the upcoming season's most valuable player and, to a greater extent, a battle between good and evil.
We know LeBron James can win the MVP; he's done it the past two season. But fans, media and personnel people around the league are ready to anoint Kevin Durant, primarily based on his gold medal-winning turn at the world championships. As one scout said, "It's his time."
It's not only that people expect Durant to win the MVP this season. It's about people wanting or even needing him to win. It's commitment to stay versus a Decision to leave, Twitter versus ESPN, humility versus narcissism.
Durant is what we want the NBA to be, LeBron is the reality of what it actually is. Men wish LeBron would act like Durant the way women wish Brad Pitt never left Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie.
Except, based on Friday night's Heat-Thunder exhibition game, which produced the second strong all-around preseason performance from James in the face of a 5-for-13 shooting night by Durant, the Durant-for-MVP predictions are starting to look premature. And Durant would tell you the narrative is off, too.
"Everybody in the media tries to twist things up and say I'm the anti-LeBron," Durant said earlier in the day. "Hey, we're playing the game of basketball. We're two basketball players who love the game. We have the same mindset, just trying to get better every day. The way he handles his business and the way I handle my business shouldn't be criticized or over-published, I think. We're all in the NBA and trying to get better. He's a great player in this league and has elevated this league for seven years. Everything he's done for the league and how much he's grown as a player, you have to commend him on that."
True, LeBron's early assertion in Miami has come largely in the absence of Dwayne Wade, who strained his right hamstring three minutes into the Heat's first preseason game. But keep in mind that Durant's dominance in the world championship also came in the absence of Wade ... and LeBron, and Kobe Bryant.
Seeing LeBron in action again is a reminder that someone will have to take the trophy from him first ... and he's not ready to yield it.
"I try to play as the MVP every time I go out there on the court," he said. "And if the trophy comes with it, then I'm humbled and I'm blessed and I'll be thankful for it. It's just how I approach the game. Preseason game, practice game, regular season, playoffs. I try to approach it the right way and I try to give it my all. "
Before we anoint Durant we have to keep in mind that he is still progressing, that he has yet to win a playoff series. He's also the guy who shot 35 percent during his first foray into the postseason last spring.
"I think that I could have been a little more aggressive," Durant said, looking back on those six games against the Lakers. "I worked on my body a little bit, too, this summer, I could be a little stronger. Some of those shots, too, I -- you know, I just missed."
And, in his view, everyone else has missed in their portrayal of Miami.
"To be honest, I really don't see what's wrong with the Heat," Durant said. "That's what baffles me a little bit, is people say they're the villains. They haven't done anything wrong outside of the basketball court. Three guys teamed up. Boston did it a couple of years back, too. They just did it a different way."
Everybody in the media tries to twist things up and say I'm the anti-LeBron. Hey, we're playing the game of basketball.
”-- Thunder forward Kevin Durant
And here's a different way of viewing them, based on this theory an Eastern Conference team executive threw at me this week : "The 'big three' might save the NBA from themselves."
His rationale is that the Heat might generate so much interest, sell so many tickets and drive TV ratings high enough that the momentum will be too strong for the league to risk squandering it with a fan-alienating lockout. The NBA can't afford to replay the NHL's first big blunder, when it caught a perfect wave when the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994 (great story, huge media market, the drama of a Game 7), only to have labor strife wipe it out with a three-month lockout the next season.
The Heat already drew 500,000 national viewers to their initial preseason game on NBA-TV, an exceptional number for an exhibition on that network. Friday night they sold out the Sprint Center, a fine facility in need of a major league tenant.
A promotional idea turned spectacularly lucky brought them together. The original intention was to bring the college-area stars on the Heat (Mario Chalmers of Kansas and Michael Beasley of Kansas State) to Kansas City to face the Thunder, whose regional appeal spreads as far as season-ticket holders in Wichita, Kan. They wound up with LeBron and the NBA's new super team, and a sellout crowd of 18,222.
What if the Heat are largely responsible for making David Stern's recent prediction that 2010-11 will be "our most successful season" come true, and the owners and players come to their senses? Will we have to recast the Heat as heroes?
There aren't enough fans ready to make that emotional leap, to divest themselves of all the ill will they've built up to embrace the South Beach squad.
But they will be forced to recalibrate the idea of anyone other than James as the favorite to win the most valuable player. It's usually a byproduct of winning, which James has done more than anyone else the past two regular seasons in Cleveland. He's not going to let his new team lose often, regardless of the status of Wade's hamstring. Through two preseason games in his new jersey, he has averaged 20 points, six assists and five rebounds in less than 30 minutes.
And perhaps he's the one who needs the accolade more. Durant has bypassed LeBron in acceptability. He's the face of the league's darling franchise, on the cover of Slam magazine and expected to grace the front of Sports Illustrated's NBA preview (with teammates included at his insistence).
He emerged from this summer as a bigger, more complete player than the guy who was already good enough to lead the league in scoring last season.
"He's becoming a man," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "You can see it on and off the court. I've been with him going on four years now. You can see he's maturing in front of our eyes. It's pretty unique to see. He's become stronger. His handle's gotten tighter. His confidence level is higher. He's a terrific teammate. He's always been those things. He's just adding to it."
It reflects the evolution of his game that he could miss four of his first five shots and still seem like the impact player in the first quarter. That's because he got past LeBron at will and racked up seven free throws (all made) as a result. He's passing out of the double-team more quickly now. And he added two rebounds and a blocked shot while playing the full 12 minutes.
He got past LeBron repeatedly when the two were matched up, and he also used his long arms to disrupt dribbles and deflect passes while guarding LeBron at the other end. But he didn't have enough offensive impact besides the 21 points he earned largely thanks to 10 perfect free throws, and he had only one assist on a night his team shot 36 percent. He had the better point guard with him in Russell Westbrook, but James had the superior pair of big men in Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem, so LeBron finished plus-16 compared to Durant's minus-18.
One of the things we love about Durant is that he doesn't feel the need to knock anyone down as he travels his path toward greatness. He always sounds respectful of other players. To be fair, James has been the same way, and he had a point when he responded to Charles Barkley's critiques by saying he never knocked any of the players that came before him. LeBron's problem is the way he sounds when talking about himself. Far too much third-person, and an increasing amount of unintended irony.
When discussing Durant on Friday, James said, "It's humbling to see another great athlete do the things he's going to do." In other words: Seeing someone as great as me makes me humble.
That doesn't work. People are gravitating toward Durant because he seems to make sense. Everything he's done so far provides evidence that he is the person he's portrayed to be, that he will keep his word. He said he was happy in Oklahoma City, that he didn't need a larger town or more attention, and he backed it up by signing the maximum five-year extension to stay there.
But we should keep in mind that the only things we really know about Durant are that he loves to play basketball and he's really good at it. We forget how susceptible he could be to mistakes because we forget how young he is.
It hit me during the playoffs, when I asked Durant what he thought about the death of the acclaimed rapper Guru. Durant said he'd never heard of him. I guess it's understandable, since Durant (who just turned 22 last month) had not even celebrated his first birthday when Guru's debut album with partner DJ Premier came out in 1989. Still, we can't have our kids ignoring critical elements of hip-hop, so I e-mailed Durant a link to a lengthy, comprehensive mix of Guru's songs.
My required listening for Durant this season is Stevie Wonder's "Innervisions."
"Stevie Wonder, huh?" Durant said. "I need to hear that."
Not just hear it, but feel it and live it. Stevie made "Innervisions" when he was 23, just a year older than Durant is now. It contained "Too High," "Visions," "Living for the City" and "Golden Lady" --- and that was just on the first side of the record. (No, I don't expect Durant to know what a record is.) It was an example of promise delivered upon, of talent realized.
If I were LeBron, my theme song for this season would be "So Appalled" by Kanye West and Co., if for no other reason than he's got to be able to relate to the lines "Dark knight feeling, die you'll be a hero/Or live long enough to see yourself become a villain/I went from the favorite to the most hated/or would you rather be underpaid or overrated?"
Durant is playing out of love. LeBron has a mission. Whether he will admit to it or not, he can validate his move only by winning a championship and his only shot at restoring his tarnished image is to play at an unforgettably high level.
"That's not for me to try to figure out, as far as the PR hit or anything like that," James said. "I know that my family is in great spirits, we're all healthy. These guys in here are the only ones I have to worry about. I don't have to worry about people, what people see in me or believe in me. I just know who I am."
We were distracted from his basketball playing ability because of his public missteps this summer. Getting back to the Stevie Wonder theme, this season could potentially be LeBron's version of "Songs In the Key of Life." He'll turn 26 in December, Stevie's age at the time he made the classic double-album that is considered the pinnacle of his career. I think LeBron is ready to produce his own masterpiece.
Stevie did most of "Innervisions" on his own, playing most of the instruments himself. The credits for "Songs In The Key of Life" include such musical legends as Herbie Hancock and George Benson. So even the greats can be helped by collaborating with other greats.
We've grown so accustomed to dividing along the simplest of lines, good versus evil, Thunder versus Heat, Durant versus LeBron. What if, between Durant and LeBron, we're on the verge of seeing something more complex and incredible ... the equivalent of having "Innervisions" and "Songs In The Key of Life" released in the same year.