The MVP debate shifted back into LeBron’s direction on Thursday night. From the opening tip, James asserted his dominance against Durant like Al Pacino sharing the silver screen with Keanu Reeves in The Devils Advocate. There are levels to this and James was floating on a cloud while Durant was obscured by his shadow.
James scored 14 of the Heat’s first 16 points and a subdued Durant never got up mentally for the fight.
The worry beforehand was that Russell Westbrook’s sudden return to the floor would nullify Kevin Durant’s newfound alpha dog mood. In the first half, Durant was in a passive mode we hadn’t seen from him since Westbrook’s meniscus started feeling like a lump of coal on Christmas Day.
It did have an effect, but the chemistry of the entire Thunder team was thrown off on Westbrook’s first night back. It’s not a complete shock. What was surprising was the decision to dump him out of his wheelchair on national television and suit him up in a high intensity matchup against the Miami Heat.
LeBron gained points back in the neck-and-neck MVP race, but in the long-term, the health of their respective sidekicks are the biggest X-Factors looming over their playoff plans.
Presumably, the Thunder need Westbrook at maximum capacity to win a title. Durant needs Westbrook just as much as LeBron needs Dwyane Wade functioning at 80 percent of his current maximum capacity.
At this point in their careers, Wade at full strength can’t match Westbrook’s supreme athleticism.
However, he counters Westbrook’s physical gifts and young quick twitch fibers with craftiness. Together, Westbrook and Wade represent the top two candidates in my annual MVKnee Rankings.
Each year, the grind of a long, arduous NBA season results in a slew of ligament and bone injuries that mars affects the title chase. Last year it was D-Wade’s water balloon knee and Westbrook’s meniscus that almost titled the championship into Indiana’s possession.
In 2008, it was Andrew Bynum’s knee injury that forced him to miss the playoffs and an entire Finals series agaist Boston.
In 2010, it was Perkins’ MCL and PCL sprains that were a factor in preventing the Celtics from winning title No. 18.
With Derrick Rose out, this is what the 2014 MVKnee rankings look like.
1. Russell Westbrook right meniscus
2. Dwyane Wade right knee
3. Derrick Rose’s right ACL
4. Brook Lopez’s right foot.
5. James Harden’s right elbow
Let’s face it. Westbrook’s had three surgeries on the same meniscus three times between mid-March and late December.
The progress of his recovery and sustained health is more important than who wins MVP between Durant and James.
The way James is getting to the rim, and playing wack-a-mole with defenders is impressive, but he’ll need Wade to get past Indiana’s punishing defense. Just slightly less than Durant needs Westbrook though. Chris Bosh has proven he can strap and go into battle with James. Those lanes to the basket aren’t there against Indiana. Going small played to Miami’s advantage, but Bosh’s inside-out versatility will be pivotal during their inevitable head-on collision with Indiana.
Dwyane Wade’s double-double night in which he penetrated, dished when defenders collapsed on him, facilitated 10 assists and dropped a cool 20 is what they need from him.
The man who would usually pick up the slack in case of a Westbrook emergency was traded because they’d already paid Serge Ibaka $50 million to guard the paint and play finesse offensively 18 feet away from the basket.
Like Sway, Ibaka had no answers against the Heat.
LeBron’s bloodied face gets honorable mention. However, Westbrook being able to pick up the slack for Durant on the rare off night when he doesn’t tap into his superhero mode is the most important development to pay attention to during the second half of the season. All that noise about writers ballots won’t satisfy Durant if they rule in his favor. The Servant doesn't serve himself. He'd rather deliver a championship to his city's doorstep.
Durant despises winning second, but the MVP vote is small beans in the grand scheme. It's all about the W. Wade Westbrook and winning jewelry.
While national writers and fans are watching the MVP race with the intensity of the Kentucky Derby's final turn I'll have my attention focused on the Most Valuable Knees in the league.