LeBron-KD rivalry still one-sided, but the sides have changed

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CLEVELAND — For nine years, Kevin Durant played wonderful games against LeBron James, his growth over the years moving alongside James’ own development as one of the game’s greatest ever.

The two MVPs played 21 times in that span, and it was a beautiful matchup. They both averaged 29 points against each other, shot almost the exact same field goal percentage, and were close in rebounds. They played in NBA Finals games and guarded each other in vital moments.

And the tally was James’ 17 wins to Durant’s four, including a lopsided 2012 championship series in which James got his first title and Finals MVP.

They were peers in every sense. Two months later in 2012, they were the leading scorers in Team USA’s victory in the gold-medal game in a close outcome against Spain in London; men at the top of their craft. Only, Durant was at James’ mercy on the scoreboard over and over.

After the Golden State Warriors’ 110-102 Game 3 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday, Durant and James have now played 12 times since Durant’s big free-agent move in 2016. They’ve both averaged 32 points in those games, shot almost the exact same field goal percentage, and were close in rebounds. They played in Finals games and guarded each other in vital moments.

The tally since the summer of 2016 is now Durant’s 10 wins to James’ two, including a lopsided 2017 championship series in which Durant got his first title and Finals MVP.

They’re still peers in every sense. They remain men at the top of their craft. Only now, James has been at Durant’s mercy on the scoreboard over and over.

Clearly, Durant has changed the situation with his move to Golden State and the thought process behind it. His decision looks more prudent by the hour. Durant had a problem and he solved it, regardless of what anyone has ever said or will say. Durant has outmaneuvered James, a man who virtually never gets outmaneuvered.

“You ask me what is the difference between the Warriors — you asked me this last year, what was the difference between the Warriors the previous year and this year, and what was my answer?” James said after his 33-point triple-double wasn’t enough after Durant scored 43 points with 13 rebounds and 7 assists.

“There it is. Kevin Durant was my answer. He’s one of the best players that I’ve ever played against, that this league has ever seen.”

So now, what is James’ countermove? Is there even an effective one to be made?

In effect, James’ free agency began Wednesday night. The Cavs failed to make it a series, and now it is just about pride for the Cavs and the location of Golden State’s postgame victory party. James will fight the good fight; he’s perhaps the greatest performer in elimination games in NBA history.

But those trying to peel James away from his home — teams that now know for sure that they won’t have to compete with a title-winning Cavs’ team in free agency — had better come up with a presentation that accounts for how James is going to reverse the reversal that Durant has engineered on him.

The same issue is in James’ lap. As he evaluates where he might elect to spend the final years of his career, where can he play that presents itself as the best option for him. The next month will be spent evaluating this, and right now, there isn’t an easy answer.

The greatest rival in James’ career had been Paul Pierce. They battled each other in five playoff series, each inflicting painful losses on the other and stepping on the other on the way to a title. James became obsessed with beating the Celtics at one time — one of the more emotional moments of his career was when he finally beat them.

Durant, though, is in the process of replacing Pierce. It’s a different rivalry, true. The closet thing James ever had to a legit fight in the NBA happened in a hallway in Columbus after a preseason game in 2004 and the man he was going after was Pierce.

It’s different with James and Durant. They’ve trained together in summers, played flag football together and, right now, are competing in a wonderful battle to be the biggest philanthropist in the league.

In January, they spent a night in a car together driving around James’ hometown in Akron talking about their lives and their careers and the lessons they learned in a feature for “Uninterrupted.” Some of them they’ve applied in this series, and some they might have to apply in the future.

“For us, when you work as hard as we do and we commit to what we do, you inspire people,” James said that snowy night. “You gotta do what makes you happy.”

But James has just as big of a problem with Durant now as he did with Pierce back in the day. The best solution — calling free-agent-to-be Durant up at the end of the series and asking him to join him forces in someplace like Los Angeles — seems to be off the table with Durant having finally achieved the higher ground.

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