Programming note: Immediately after the final horn of the Warriors-Cavs showdown on Christmas Day, change the channel to CSN Bay Area for a special Warriors edition of SportsNet Central.
For nine seasons and 31 games, Kevin Durant has collected countless accolades in an NBA career thus far defined by a stunning change of address, multiple scoring titles and an MVP award followed by a memorable acceptance speech.
Durant craves only one more substantive addition. He wants an NBA championship.
Which almost certainly means he must scale the wall that is LeBron James.
The next attempt comes Christmas Day, when Durant and the Warriors invade Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland to face James and the Cavaliers. The James-Warriors dynamic is why the team was so relentless and persuasive last summer in their pursuit of Durant.
Moreover, the James-Durant dynamic surely was a factor in KD’s decision to leave Oklahoma City last July and sign with the Warriors.
The two “small” forwards may be the two best players of their era – though Stephen Curry has to be in the conversation – but Durant lags behind James in most every area. When they met in the 2012 Finals, Durant’s Thunder lost in five games to James’ Heat. Durant in his career is 4-17 when facing James.
That qualifies as a wall.
And now Durant has new teammates to aid his climb.
“Every time I play the Cavs with LeBron there, it’s been a big game,” Durant said. “So it’s not like I’m new to the hype around the game. Every time I’ve played against LeBron James, it’s been a huge game.”
This one is huge for the Warriors, whose freshest memories of the Cavs are of the deep disappointment that came with blowing a 3-1 series lead to Cleveland in the NBA Finals last June. The Warriors were in position for back-to-back championships, and the Cavs, with James leading the way, took it away.
That setback strengthened the Warriors’ resolve to chase Durant, while also nudging Durant toward Oakland.
“We feel a little more comfortable going into this matchup, having Kevin Durant on our team,” Warrors coach Steve Kerr said. “It’s been a great rivalry the last couple years. LeBron is so good, so big, so strong and smart. He’s a phenomenal player. It’s nice to be able to go back with Kevin; obviously they’ll guard each other quite a bit.”
Well, of course. James will rely on smarts and the brute force of his muscular 6-foot-8, 250-pound body to try to deny Durant, who lacks LeBron’s bulk but stands a couple inches taller.
It is, to a great degree, a battle of brawn vs. finesse.
“When you play against great players, they up the level of everybody,” Durant said. “You bring it when you play against guys like that. It’s somebody that I’m chasing, somebody that I admired coming up, somebody that I’m competing with . . . it brings out the best in you.”
The Warriors concede that after consecutive years facing each other in the NBA Finals there is a rivalry with the Cavs. Everything said and done between these teams goes under the microscope, from James’ tepid reaction to Curry’s second MVP award to Curry’s comment about the visitors’ locker room in Cleveland smelling of champagne to Draymond Green’s dustup with James that resulted in Green being suspended for Game 5 of the 2015 Finals.
The Christmas Day reunion will not be warm.
“It’s two teams trying to get to the same spot. We do it our way. They do it their way,” Curry said. “We don’t know how it’s going to be at the end of the year, but these are games when you’re playing the best team in the East right now. It’s going to be a tough task to get a win. You’ve got to come out and just compete. There’s history. But this is a new start.”
The Warriors last season swept two games from the Cavaliers before losing The Finals in seven. The Warriors have believed they are the better team for at least two seasons. Having Durant, they believe, puts immense pressure on James and the Cavs.
“It definitely changes a lot of things,” Green said. “It helps out a lot. It makes them have to guard us a little more honestly. So it’ll be a good matchup on both ends of the floor.”
Though Durant has been sensational since joining the Warriors, nothing he does will matter as much as his work against James and the Cavaliers. The key to the Warriors coming back at the Cavs is KD’s ability to offset James.
In that regard, Sunday’s game within the game is bigger than the game itself.
“A lot of people are going to be watching,” Durant said. “But just go out there and do what you do. That’s how I try to approach it. I’m not putting the pressure on myself, or any of that stuff. It’s just basketball, at the end of the day. We all lace our shoes up the same. When the ball is tipped up, you’ve still got to be who you are.”