Defining week in the burgeoning rivalry of the NBA’s big two
By John Riordan
Americans like their team sports to be reduced to duels, the battle of stars who are more often than not defined by recent form.
This is a world where the quarterback assumes too much responsibility and can make or break a team. Running backs happily accept a heavy burden on their huge shoulders and tree-trunk legs, becoming the “face of the franchise” if the QB isn’t quite elite.
Baseball pushes its pitchers out onto the mound and build whole teams and fan bases around them.
Ice hockey is obsessed with its goal keepers (or “tenders”) and if you watch any big soccer game from Europe, it will be promoted as, for example, “Ronaldo and Portugal do battle with Arjen Robben and the Netherlands” or “Xavi and Spain take on the might of Robbie Keane and Ireland”. (Ok, maybe that second one didn’t happen.)
But it is in the NBA where this tendency to single out a pair of elite opponents becomes most apparent and it is why these next few days, you should be trying to stay up late to watch a couple of games from this season’s finals.
It is a tradition that has its roots in that sport’s foundational rivalry, two of the greatest centres or “big men” of all time, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. Not only were they an important presence for the sport as it tried to take a foothold in the American psyche during the early days of the league, they almost seemed like they were vital to each other’s careers, bettering themselves in order to outdo the other.
Chamberlain finished up with the better stats while Russell won far more titles (11 to two). The argument rages on.
Basketball feuds are often helped by the college system. It was at the 1979 National Championship game that Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson and Michigan State overcame Larry Bird’s Indiana State before the two players went on to dominate the 1980s and each other’s every waking thought as the Celtics and the Lakers shared five titles between them.
Patrick Ewing and Georgetown beat Hakeem Olajuwon and the University of Houston in 1984 but revenge was Olajuwon’s ten years later when the Houston Rockets managed to come back from a 3-2 NBA Finals deficit to shock Ewing’s New York Knicks.
Game Four of this season’s series between the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder was decided overnight but this has the potential to mark itself out as a rivalry for the ages if it keeps going the way it has been.
Thrown up in lights are Miami’s pantomime villain LeBron James and the relatively wholesome Kevin Durant, a pair of extreme talents residing on another level from their peers, separated by four years but sharing a common goal: a first title.
Nothing has been predictable. Miami have been written off as many times as Oklahoma have been prematurely crowned.
When Miami struggled against Philadelphia and Boston in previous rounds, it was the much maligned James who dragged his team through. After Durant destroyed the LA Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs, he carried that form into Game One against Miami. Any chance of a foregone conclusion went out the window in the two subsequent games as James channelled his anger into points on the board.
There’s no doubt, however, whom America wants to win and it isn’t the 27-year-old James, who first appeared on the front cover of Sports Illustrated a decade ago as a high school student who understood his ability but never could have imagined the storm of vitriol that would eventually pour down on him.
Durant has made more solid PR choices and although blessed with a slightly different talent set, his potential to dominate the game over the next decade is almost assured.
Intriguingly if he succeeds, it will surely be at the expense of his opposite number at Miami who mapped out his own plan to take over the sport without allowing for the emergence of the gangly DC native who has lit up the professional game since leaving the University of Texas after his first year.
This match-up would be all the more enjoyable if there was animosity but the only real tension exists between James and the media.
He has learned from his mistakes but any time he doesn’t turn in a flawless performance, he is castigated severely.
It doesn’t matter that James at his best brings him closer to all-time greatness. His best is only ever good enough. Durant has a little more leeway due to being all the more likeable. As with Russell and Chamberlain, it’ll come down to titles.
In the next few days, we might have the first defining chapter of basketball’s newest rivalry.
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