MVP trailer: LeBron chasing Durant

MIAMI -- LeBron James was muttering to himself as he removed the ice wraps from his knees after a victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves in the spring of 2011.

Moments earlier James had done something he hadn't liked: He'd publicly conceded the MVP race that season to Derrick Rose. At the time, Rose's Chicago Bulls were in the midst of winning 16 of 17 games to clinch the best record in the league and James' Miami Heat were 0-3 against them during the regular season.

That night James had just missed a triple-double against the Wolves, one in a long line of huge games, but Rose had carried the Bulls to another victory in Detroit. James, who had won the previous two MVPs, said after the game that Rose was probably the best candidate. It was surprising, James admitting he wasn't going to win with time still left in the race. It was also reality.

"No, I don't like saying it but that's what's going to happen," James said in a private moment after the cameras were turned off that night. "I'm not going to be allowed to win it this year, I'm just dealing with it."

James was right: Rose won that MVP by a landslide and the two-time MVP James ended up third behind Dwight Howard as his overall popularity took a hit following how he handled his free-agency move to Miami.

Publicly James handled the MVP race with such class, praising Rose all the way. Privately it was another in a line of blows that made that 2010-11 season the most miserable of his career. He ultimately used it as motivation when leading the Heat to a conference finals victory, outplaying Rose head-to-head.

James is fond of saying that individual awards are a benefit of team success, a phrase he defaults to without even thinking. Don't believe all of it: The MVP is very important to James. So is history. And this season, even though he's got four Maurice Podoloff trophies in his trophy case, James is not prepared to let Kevin Durant win the MVP award.

At least not yet.

Wednesday they will face off for the first time this season with Durant firmly in the lead to unseat James. Durant is having one of the most prolific months in league history, running on an 11-game streak of 30-point games as he racks up game winners while the Oklahoma City Thunder keep winning without Russell Westbrook.

James has praised Durant unfailingly along the way, joking about how his friends and family send him messages to update him on Durant's play every night. Those who know him best do it for a reason: They know it acts as motivation. Strong motivation.

And it's already working. James' 10 best games of the season? The past 10, coinciding with Durant's surge. During that stretch James is averaging 28.4 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists. Of course in Durant's past 10, he's averaging 37.5 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists. James has been great. Durant has been better.

So while he'll stick to publicly praising his friend Durant -- "even in his short career, he's one of the best scorers to ever play," James said Tuesday -- the reigning MVP is highly competitive when it comes to protecting that title.

The signals are coming out of James left and right recently, in between his discourse about Durant's hot streak. James has been quick to remind people that his shots are down to career-low levels this season, going so far as to say how he was "jealous" of Durant's shot attempts.

This week James said he's been petitioning coach Erik Spoelstra to play more minutes. Virtually never in James' career has he ever publicly talked about wanting to play more minutes. During his first two seasons in Miami, James both openly and behind closed doors carped about his minute load being too much. Last season, James privately harped on how he was being asked to do too much in playing so many minutes at power forward against bigger defenders and how it was wearing him out.

Now James' playing time is at a career low, less than 37 minutes a night. Spoelstra has almost totally eliminated James' time at power forward. And yet now James is reversing his position on the matter.

"I'm not playing as many minutes as I would like but Spo is in control of that," James said Tuesday. "I don't like playing less, I don't feel like I need to play less. Don't ever put it out there that LeBron wants to play less."

There's no rift between James and the coaching staff. James knows Spoelstra is trying to be prudent for the long haul. If you're looking for an explanation for this attitude, the root lies not with James' team at all, but it wears No. 35 and lives in Oklahoma.

James' stats overall are down and Durant's are up. With the middle of the season here, James is perhaps starting to have that feeling that he eventually succumbed to back in 2011, sensing that someone else might get the MVP that he treasures.

Never before in league history has a player won five MVP awards over a six-year span, as James is attempting to do before he even turns 30. Last year when he won his fourth in a five-year run, James became just the second ever to do that after Bill Russell. Only three players in history -- Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Russell -- have won three straight.

There are many different reasons for it. It's hard to stay motivated year after year, just ask Michael Jordan. It's hard to stay healthy. The voters get fatigue and the winners of multiple MVPs end up competing against their own ghosts, held to the standards of their past seasons. Most important, there's always rising, and usually younger, competition.

Durant has been on James' heels for a few years but James, as he has blossomed into his prime, has been untouchable. For various reasons, that no longer appears to be the case as of now.

Simply, James hasn't had his best season to this point. Instead of his usual rigid and rugged September workout regimen that included his so-called "hell week" of two-a-days with Durant, James took most of that month off last fall. He took two trips to Europe, one of which was for his honeymoon after his wedding in San Diego.

There's no fault in that, after two Finals runs and the 2012 Olympics, James had been on basketball overload since December 2011, when the lockout ended. He more than earned and badly needed a down summer. He took it but he also came to training camp in less than the shape he's used to.

Early in the season, James struggled with his stamina. Then he tweaked his back. Then he tweaked his ankle. Then he tweaked his groin. Then he hurt his shoulder.

He's had problems with the basics, too. Even his shoes haven't been right. His latest signature Nikes, the LeBron 11, have been huge sellers. It will probably be the best year Nike has had selling James' stuff to date, and the commission checks have probably been fantastic. But James has twice had to stop wearing the shoes during games so Nike could redesign his custom molds because of issues in his toe area and with traction.

All of this discomfort in body and equipment has shown up in James' play. It's true he has never shot it better, now at 58 percent. But the rest of his numbers have slipped: rebounds, assists, blocks and steals are down and turnovers are up. His defense has at times been truly lackluster, to the stunning point that the Heat have actually been better defensively this season when James has been on the bench. That's not a number anyone expected to see.

Last year, James was miffed when he wasn't named NBA Defensive Player of the Year and it seemed like he'd vowed to try to win the award this season. Instead, he's probably had his three most inconsistent defensive months since the 2004-05 season.

James seems to be both willfully and purposely conserving energy and focus for when it really matters. The Heat are focused on giving Dwyane Wade games off for a "maintenance" program. James seems to be operating his own program, especially when it comes to expending energy on defense.

"I'm not where I want to be in terms of health," James said.

In short, this has not been James' best half season. He has not been the league's MVP to this point. Durant has him.

But it isn't over, it isn't over by a long shot. James knows it and Durant does too. But the push is without a doubt on and they both want it badly. James knows he's got a very serious challenger and Durant knows he's got a giant to take down.

"The MVP," James said. "It's an unbelievable award."

"Of course, as a player, you would love to win the MVP award," Durant said. "Every day I got to just keep chipping away."