NBA’s biggest stars set for big Sunday night

LeBron James has been a witness this season.

Like all of us, he has watched Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant ascend to favorite for the 2013-14 MVP award and possibly as the best player in the world. That would supplant James, who has the NBA’s MVP the past two seasons while leading the Miami Heat to back-to-back NBA championships.

Durant is averaging 31.9 points on a career-high 54.7 percent shooting on the way to his fourth scoring title in five seasons. With three-time All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook out injured, Durant has carried the Thunder to the best record in the league with a dizzying display of scoring performances that even had James admitting envy at the amount of shots he gets.

James has watched the consistent growth since Durant was the second player picked in the 2007 NBA draft.

“I think he’s just been steady,” James said. “He continues to get better each and every year.

“It’s not a huge growth where last year, he was there, and now this year, he’s here. He’s just been steady from his first year at (the University of) Texas, to (his rookie year with) Seattle, growing, growing, growing. And he’s put himself in one of the top spots in the NBA.”

The two will be matched against each other in today’s NBA All-Star Game at Smoothie King Center. Both shrug off the significance of it with regard to this season or their standing in the league.

Asked about going against James and the competitive nature of the two and their reputations as the top two players in the NBA, Durant sighed.

“There are too many great players in the All-Star Game to focus on just two,” he said.

James offered as much also, but added, “At some point, the All-Star Game gets serious. We may be matched up against each other, but it won’t be anything personal.”

Durant has played in the past four All-Star Games, and was chosen MVP in 2012 at Orlando.

For James, this All-Star Game will be his 10th in a row in an 11-year career, and he was selected MVP the last time the game was played here, in 2008. He said the significance of that award was that it came after Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and had an effect on the nation.

However, although James also was MVP of the 2006 game, his career has flourished even more since the one in New Orleans. He reached the NBA Finals the next season, and has won two championships since then, as well as the regular-season MVP awards.

“I’ve had some pretty good staple moments since then, and hopefully I can continue,” he said.

Durant has had a slew of staple moments this seasons. That has been particularly true of late. He was a terror in the month of January, for instance, scoring 30 or more points in 12 consecutive games, from Jan. 7 to Jan. 29, when he propelled Oklahoma City past the Heat in Miami.

What’s been impressive, said Thunder coach Scott Brooks, coach of the Western Conference All-Star team, is that Durant is averaging a career-high 5.5 assists and is making more of an impact defensively.

To James, the NBA’s most complete player, the continued development of Durant, 25, as a leader is the most important improvement.

“I think for him, the more and more games he plays, the playoff series, the confidence, and then him becoming a leader of a team, a franchise player and the keys being turned over to him, he’s taken that responsibility high, and he’s taken advantage of it,” said James, 29, speaking from experience.

Durant has only been to the Finals once, in 2012, when OKC lost to the Heat in five games. However, Durant is a stronger, more mature player and leader now, and when Westbrook returns, the Thunder (43-12) could end up with the playoffs’ No. 1 seed.

Asked if, with Durant’s ascendance, he foresaw a Magic Johnson-Larry Bird-type rivalry ensuing over the next half decade, James paused.

“I don’t know,” he said. “The game is so much different now. Boston and the Lakers were so much more dominant than the other teams that you just knew they were going to get to the Finals.

“There are so many great teams now. You can’t think that the Heat and the Thunder is going to be there.

“But with me and Durant, we just try to put our team in a position where, hopefully, at the end of the year, we are there.”

For right now, though, there’s the All-Star Game.