J.A. Adande and Israel Gutierrez are teaming up this season for a look at the NBA from two perspectives, called West Side/East Side. Today's edition looks at the Christmas Day showdown between the Thunder and Heat.
Since it's December, not June, there's only one thing I'm looking for from the lap around the test track that is this Christmas game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat: Can Kevin Durant be the best player on a court that has LeBron James on it?
Outperforming the reigning Most Valuable Player who's at the peak of his powers is a daunting challenge. At the same time, it's a simple premise, one that's necessary if Oklahoma City plays Miami in the NBA Finals again and expects a different outcome.
Basketball, even at its highest levels, can be very basic. The team with the best player in the series usually wins. It's similar to the telltale statistic in the Super Bowl, where the starting quarterback who finished with the higher rating has won 43 of 46 times.
A check of the game-score statistic (which factors in points, field goal shooting, free throw shooting, rebounds, steals, assists, blocked shots, fouls and turnovers) shows that James was better than Durant in each of the four games the Heat won. Durant topped him in Game 1, which was Oklahoma City's only victory. There was more to the series, of course, including Miami's increasingly incendiary 3-point shooting. But in a star-driven league, you begin with the stars' impact.
So can Durant be better than James? Well, Durant was the leading scorer when they were teammates on the Olympic squad in London last summer, and with the premium the international game puts on outside shooting, Durant's 3-point range often made him the Americans' most valuable player.
The next step for Durant to be better than LeBron is to be more like LeBron. That means impacting the game beyond the scoring column. And Durant is already on his way.
Durant's 8.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists per games are on pace to be the best of his career. His scoring average is right around the 28 points he maintained the past two seasons, only now he's doing it with two fewer field goal attempts per game. He's more efficient than ever with a chance to hit that rarified 50 percent field goal/40 percent 3-pointers/90 percent free throws trifecta.
LeBron was right when he said he could lead the league in scoring if he wanted to. We know the same goes for Durant, who did it the past three seasons, but seems content to let Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony duke it out this year.
While we're on the topic of scoring: Durant scored his 10,000th point earlier this season with considerably less fanfare than what surrounded Bryant when he reached 30,000. Here's where it gets interesting: Durant basically got there in five years; he had 9,978 points at the end of last season. After Bryant's first five seasons, he had 6,178 points. At 10,000 points every five years, Durant should get to 30,000 a season earlier than Bryant, although at the same age because he spent a year in college as part of the first class banned from jumping straight to the pros out of high school. Something to keep an eye on, especially if Bryant winds up passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
But if Durant gets 30,000 -- or even 40,000 -- the marks will be hollow without a championship ring. The Thunder are close. The jarring preseason trade of James Harden hasn't appeared to disrupt their steady strides toward a championship. We don't know how this reconfigured group will hold up through the playoff cauldron, but one of the safest wagers in sports is that Durant will be ready.
Last season he bested Nowitzki and the Mavericks, Bryant and the Lakers and Duncan and the Spurs, dispatching 13 years' worth of Western Conference champions in a span of fewer than six weeks. LeBron and the Heat are still out there. The goal. The standard.
So far this season, Durant and the Thunder have cleared their way to the top of the NBA standings. In a league of great point guards, Russell Westbrook is dangerous as any of them. Serge Ibaka is a bigger scoring threat than ever before. And it still comes down to Durant. He's the only one on the team capable of outplaying LeBron. He might be the only one in the league who can. That's why the Thunder can beat the Heat in the Finals. It's why this game is the most significant on the Christmas slate -- the one that can give us the best indication of who will reign supreme in June.