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Handicapping the MVP race between LeBron James and Kevin Durant

By Zach Harper | NBA writer

LeBron James scored 61 points Monday vs. Charlotte.   (USATSI)
Could LeBron James' 61 points Monday be a signature moment of an MVP season? (USATSI)

More: Twitter reacts | Moore: LeBron shows efficiency | Heat win 124-107

The Most Valuable Player award race is often a marathon that we want to turn into a sprint. We start tracking it in the first two weeks of November, asking if a player is a leading candidate for the season's most prestigious individual honor. By the middle of the season, we want to give it to someone like the Lord of the Flies conch and claim it's theirs to protect.

We end up taking a season-long award and turn it into something much shorter than the necessary criteria for such an honor. The 2013-14 season is showing us how silly it is to not look at the process of the entire regular season before rewarding someone with the distinction as the league's move valuable. The award has been passed from Paul George to LeBron James to Kevin Durant in the first three months of the season.

And after the month of February and James' 61 points against the Charlotte Bobcats, we're reminded that we still have a full quarter of the season to go and that the award is very much up for grabs. As nice as it would be to include George, LaMarcus Aldridge and anybody else on successful teams this season, it's a two-horse race between Durant and James.

When handicapping just where this MVP race is for the 2013-14 season, it's important to recognize the ebb and flow of their respective campaigns. Through the first two months of the season, James had the upper hand on Durant. While Durant's league-leading 28.8 points per game on shooting splits of 49.4/42.1/87.9 were incredible, LeBron was operating averages of 25.5 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 6.6 assists with 59.0 percent from the field and 41.5 percent from the 3-point line.

Then Russell Westbrook went down right after Christmas Day and Durant went into a historic stretch of basketball that turned each game into appointment viewing. While LeBron elevated his game from the day after Christmas to the All-Star break with an impressive stretch of basketball (28.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 54.1 percent from the field), Durant turned into a bounty hunter collecting checks in every city. He averaged 35.0 points 7.5 rebounds, and 6.3 assists while shooting 52.7 percent from the field. He was basically LeBron but with way more scoring.

During this stretch of the season, the Oklahoma City Thunder had the best record in basketball at 20-7, despite not having one of the top 10 players in the league in Westbrook. This was all Durant's doing as he took on double and triple teams without his second in command and actually improved the standing of the team.

In the five games since the All-Star break, James has picked up his play once again to topple over the incredible efforts of Durant. After the career-high of 61 points Monday night, he's putting up 37.4 points on 67.9 percent from the field. The Heat haven't lost since the break and he's besting the 32.6 points on 47.4 percent from the field by Durant. This leaves us with the question of who is in prime position to win the MVP as we hit the three-quarter of the season next week.

The beautiful answer is nobody.

In reality, the NBA MVP award is a series of sprints that comprise a marathon. Some players will hit a bit of a lull here and there but these top two candidates will have one more stretch of basketball this season to outdo one another. Durant has been tired of being No. 2 his entire life. James has tried to remind people, even bitterly during Durant's incredible stretch in the middle of the season, that he's still capable of doing whatever his lone peer in the NBA is doing.

Both players want this award, even if they won't outright state it on their list of priorities. As we finish out the final 20-plus games of the season. We have a neck-and-neck race between the two worthy parties. James' 61-point effort was one of the signature moments that you need in an MVP campaign, much like what Durant was putting up during his dominant portion of the season.

The player who has the final signature moment of the 2013-14 season will likely end up with the award. Let's see who wins the final sprint of the season.

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