Bird vs. Magic: The rivalry that saved the NBA.
Hard to believe, but since then, the league has lacked having its top two players in their prime going at it to stir the attention of even the casual fan.
With 26-year-old Kevin Durant about to supplant 29-year-old LeBron James as the league’s most valuable player and with the distinct possibility that Oklahoma City and Miami will meet in the Finals — San Antonio and Indiana might disagree, but let’s not break up a good storyline — we could well be entering just that kind of era again.
“I have so much respect for what Larry and Magic did for the league,” Durant said before the Thunder’s 101-89 loss to the Pelicans Monday at the Smoothie King Center. “It’s mind-blowing to be compared to those guys.
“To me though, it’s about the Oklahoma City Thunder and not trying to build an individual rivalry. We’re both out there and doing what it takes to help our teams to win.”
Which is why, on a night Oklahoma City was finishing back-to-back road games that began with a 102-97 loss to the Pacers on Sunday, Durant was playing instead of resting, even though the injury-plagued Pelicans were down to signing D-Leaguers to have enough warm bodies on the bench.
Perhaps he should have taken the night off.
In a decidedly non-MVP performance, Durant scored 25 points but missed 14 of 23 shots and had seven turnovers as the Thunder saw an opportunity to clinch the No. 2 seed in the West squandered against a team they’d beaten by 22 at home Friday.
“I should have brought a better attitude,” Durant said. “I was so focused on trying to play perfect that I didn’t help my team.
“When I think like that I get frustrated. I’ve got to have more fun out there and not play with an edge.”
Attitude or not, Durant played 42 minutes, 53 seconds Monday, more than four minutes more than his season average. It also was his 80th game, the fourth time in eight seasons he’s been durable enough to hit that mark.
“I’m not one of those guys who can play the first quarter and then just sit down,” Durant said. “I’m so competitive, I always want to play, and coach (Scott Brooks) knows that about me.”
There’s another reason, Durant wanted to play Monday.
KD and the Thunder aren’t LBJ and the Heat when it comes to bringing out hordes of supporters whenever they’re on the road. Stockyards City will never have the cachet of South Beach.
But the number of Thunder jerseys visible Monday was solid second to those seen last month when Miami visited.
It’s a star-driven league, and players like Durant recognize an obligation to the fans, even if he tries deflects the attention to others.
“That shows how much we’ve grown as an organization,” Durant said of the road buzz the Thunder creates. “We’re recognized for who we are as a team.
“It’s definitely an honor and a blessing to get the cheers on the road and to represent Oklahoma City.”
But it’s a good bet few in Monday’s sellout crowd were there to see Thabo Sefolosha.
They were there for Durant. He’s not just the NBA scoring champion for the fourth time (32.0 points per game) with range and myriad moves that make him the league’s toughest player to defend, including LeBron, but also a play-maker (5.5 assists-per-game, just a tick of his career best), solid rebounder (7.4) and defender.
“He never gets tired,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said before Monday’s game. “That’s rare for a guy to play the amount of minutes he plays (38.4).
“And then he’s so long, and he has such a passion for the game.”
That passion has manifested itself this season in more than Durant’s own performance.
With all-star guard Russell Westbrook missing 28 games, Durant had to shoulder not just a more-physical load, but an emotional one as well.
“KD’s leadership has improved every year,” Brooks said. “He was put in the position early on as a 19-year-old rookie to lead, and that took time.
“But now it’s a big part of his game. It’s not just scoring points; it’s in practice, the locker room, everywhere.”
Of course, for Durant to truly be considered on the plane with James, he has to lead his team to a championship.
James had the same burden until two years ago until he and the Heat beat Durant in the Thunder in the Finals in five games.
Durant might not have been ready to take a team to the title then.
And this year’s playoff road will be tough — likely starting with Dallas, then the Clippers and finally the Spurs, all before getting to the Heat.
So there’s no assurance it will happen.
And if it does, James, while ceding the MVP in recent days, isn’t about to give up his shot a three-peat without a fight.
Still, Durant said Monday that James’ endorsement of his MVP credentials meant a lot to him.
“That’s really cool,” he said. “The respect you have from your peers, your competitors, is what you’d have more than anything else.
“For LeBron and the other guys to say these nice things about me is very humbling.”