It's not over yet.
That's my MVP takeaway from Wednesday's showdown between the Thunder and Heat, and thereby LeBron James and Kevin Durant. The MVP discussion is still wide open for business.
The feeling entering the game was that it was mostly about two things: 1) The Heat finally showing up against a premier opponent since the All-Star break and 2) the MVP race. Durant had made a strong push against LeBron after Oklahoma City's 16-point whipping of Miami a week and a half ago where Durant completely outplayed James. If Durant were to walk into LeBron's house and do that to him again, the debate would essentially be over. Durant would be 2-0 against LeBron and possess the necessary trump card.
Instead, LeBron outplayed Durant and Miami won 98-93 win to split the season series. Some see this as the final nail in the MVP coffin. But in reality, all it does it leave the door open for the next three weeks.
LeBron certainly has the edge. Durant was in a position that he needed a second statement because of the statistical edge LeBron has had this season. Hard to argue with LeBron's PER, that for a while threatened Michael Jordan's all-time mark. Hard to argue with the impact he has on both ends of the floor. But don't get so wrapped up in that and dismiss Durant's incredible season. He's having his most efficient yet, has improved mightily as a distributor and defender and taken the Thunder from uncertain contender to arguably the team to beat.
And as we all know, MVPs are often handed out based more on the story than the stats. Durant's got the narrative to go with it. He's become a ferocious clutch player, leading the league in nearly every clutch stat. He's asserted himself as an incredible teammate and leader, bringing the best out of Russell Westbrook while saying and doing all the right things with his tempermental sidekick. He's taken a step from just a gifted scoring machine into a guy that owns the floor. It's his game every night, even when he's standing back and letting Westbrook score. Because that's what makes Durant so incredibly special. He doesn't have to put his stamp on every game. He picks his spots better than anyone in the league, interchanging big moments with Westbrook while still never letting go of the alpha dog role. He's the king of the Thunder because he doesn't have to say so.
Durant's not a new face, but he certainly is a new story. If LeBron wins the MVP, it'll be just because his numbers were too much to ignore. He's worth 40 wins alone. He's that good. But we already know that. He's won two MVPs because of it. It's nothing new that he's the best player in basketball when he wants to be.
LeBron was backed into a corner and responded. He finished with 34-10-7 and four steals. He showed up. He met Durant head-to-head and forced him into a career-high nine turnovers. We've all seen LeBron sort of melt away from these type of moments before, but not this time. He was called out by Durant's performance in OKC and he spoke up for himself.
But that just means this thing has to be seen out until the end. LeBron has the pole position once again, but it's neck and neck. It's going to take a slip up from James and some incredible efforts from Durant to move the bar again, but there's still time for closing arguments.
Against each other, Durant and LeBron are done talking, until maybe June. They split the series 1-1, Durant whipped LeBron once and LeBron edged Durant once. Durant entered Wednesday's game needing another statement, but since it didn't happen, all that did was open this thing up for discussion over the next couple weeks. The MVP is still up for grabs.