LOS ANGELES – The two NBA superstars completed a ritual that once felt customary. It has since felt new.
LeBron James and Kevin Durant dapped each other at midcourt. They then tried to outperform the other. And as shown in the Lakers’ 100-95 win over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday at Crypto.com Arena, James and Durant produced yet another masterpiece worthy of their career-long highlight reel.
James and Durant once completed this ritual in three NBA Finals appearances and 21 other regular-season matchups. Amid a pandemic and overlapping injuries, Durant and James squared off against each other in a regular-season setting for the first time since 2018 on Christmas Day. James and Durant picked up right where they left off 1,766 days ago.
With Lakers coach Darvin Ham allowing his 38-year-old star durable in his 21st NBA season to log 33 minutes, James finished with 21 points on 7-for-14 shooting along with nine assists and eight rebounds in the Lakers’ home season opener. While his star teammates Bradley Beal (tight lower back) and Devin Booker (sore left foot) missed the Suns’ second regular-season game, Durant added 39 points on a 14-for-28 clip and 11 rebounds in 40 minutes in the second game of his 16th season.
“We don’t have many matchups left,” James said. “I’m not sure how many we have left. So, you never want to take it for granted when you’re out there with such a great player and one of the best players to ever play this game. It’s always a treat, and it’s fun.”
Practically speaking, the result itself became more important than any nostalgia that James and Durant triggered.
The Lakers improved to 1-1 following their season-opening loss to the Denver Nuggets. Lakers forward Anthony Davis showcased a more aggressive version of himself against Phoenix (30 points on 10-for-17 shooting, 12 rebounds) than he did in Denver (17 points total, scoreless in second half). Though the Lakers received help elsewhere with D’Angelo Russell’s playmaking (14 points, five assists), Austin Reaves’ aggressiveness (10 points) and Christian Wood’s surprising defense), the Lakers also leaned heavily more on James than planned.
Ham limited James to 29 minutes in the Lakers’ season-opening loss to Denver on Wednesday. But with the Lakers facing an 84-72 deficit after the third quarter, Ham gauged James’ comfort level to play the rest of the game. James said he considered “that was an easy answer for myself” because of his competitive juices and his disciplined training regimen. Ham felt just as comfortable for the same reasons. It also helped he had three timeouts left.
As James scored 10 fourth-quarter points, Ham strategically used those timeouts both to make adjustments and to give James time to rest. While trailing, 87-84, Ham called timeout with 4:55 left before substituting Reaves for Russell. Ham used another timeout at the 3:07 mark so James could recharge before making a pair of free throws for a 91-87 lead with 3:07 left.
“We’ve been managing him. He’s been managing himself,” Ham said. “That’s why you see that spring and that pop in his step. We’ve been really efficient about our offseason work.”
For a league that has tried in recent seasons to produce more excitement around regular-season games, however, James and Durant delivered with their head-to-head matchup.
Durant performed his usual tricks with converting from the baseline, along the elbows and near the basket against both single and multiple defenders. James occasionally converted from deep and mostly at the rim. James performed a chase-down block on Josh Okogie. Durant nailed a step-back 3 just before the third quarter ended. James scored 10 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter with frequent trips to the free-throw line (4-for-4) and three layups. After shooting prolifically in the third quarter (15 points on 5-for-6 shooting and from the free-throw line), Durant had nine points on only a 4-for-11 clip and 1-for-4 mark from deep in the fourth. As another example of his ability to defy Father Time and gravity, James leaped high in the air to deflect a pass directed toward Durant while the Lakers held a 98-93 cushion with seven seconds left.
Those moments proved more epic than when James and Durant faced off last week in a pre-season game in Palm Springs. Then, Durant scored 21 points in the first half and James posted 19 points in 22 minutes. That game technically didn’t count. The latest one did.
“I never take for granted for the opportunities and for the games we get opportunities to be on the same floor at the same time,” James said. “We’ve had so many battles. Over his career and my career, we’ve been able to make so many plays individually for our respective teams throughout that.”
Not only should James feel daily reminders of both his basketball mortality and longevity through his daily aches and pains. So should Durant.
The former Seattle Supersonics picked Durant at No. 2 in the 2007 NBA Draft following his lone season at the University of Texas shortly after James appeared in his first NBA Finals. After initially struggling to recall their first head-to-head matchup, James then remembered he played against Durant when the Cavaliers hosted the Sonics on Jan. 8, 2008. Durant outscored James (24-22), but he missed the final 7:31 after twisting his left ankle. James sat the entire fourth quarter, while Cleveland cruised to a 95-79 win. Four years later, James met Durant in the NBA Finals in what many NBA fans predicted would become a daily ritual. James helped the Miami Heat beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games a year after James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh experienced growing pains in their Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
That Finals reunion didn’t happen right away. After the Heat split two NBA Finals against San Antonio (2013, 2014), James returned to Cleveland only to square off against the NBA’s new dynasty. After the Warriors won the first matchup, James helped Cleveland became the only team in NBA Finals history to overcome a 3-1 series deficit en route to their first championship in franchise history. That result partly prompted the Warriors to acquire Durant to pair with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala. Not surprising then that Durant helped the Warriors win two consecutive NBA titles in two Finals MVP performances at James’ expense. Not only did Durant deny James more jewelry. He temporarily moved him off center stage. Durant drilled two go-ahead 3-pointers over James in the final moments of Game 3 in both the 2017 and 2018 NBA Finals. After that Finals, James signed with the Lakers as a free agent.
“He’s a lot stronger now,” James said of Durant. “A lot of people are talking about his weight or whatever the case may be. KD will get you up often, for sure, out on the floor. He’s put in a lot of work. He’s just a natural born scorer.”
Durant technically may have outperformed James in head-to-head Finals matchups (2-1, 9-5 record overall). James still led to the head-to-head matchups in the regular season both in results (16-6) and production. To this day, Durant still has received less credit for his Finals MVP performances to ensure an NBA title and more scrutiny for joining a team full of future Hall-of-Famers that already enjoyed one champagne bath. James sparked his own criticism for largely spearheading stars to form ‘Super Teams.” Nonetheless, only a singular force like James could collect four NBA titles and four Finals MVPs in 10 Finals appearances, including a nine-year span (2011-2018).
Incidentally, the last James and Durant regular-season matchup led to the end of his Finals streak.
In the Lakers’ Christmas Day win over the Warriors in 2018, James strained his left groin. He eventually missed a combined 27 consecutive games before the Lakers missed the postseason. So much has changed since then. James pressured the Lakers front office to acquire Davis from New Orleans, an outcome that didn’t happen until the 2019 offseason. The Lakers then won the 2020 NBA title, a season filled with challenges surrounding Kobe Bryant’s passing, the COVID-19 pandemic sparking a league shutdown and a season restart in a campus bubble near Orlando, Fla. During a first-round exit (2021) and a missed playoff appearance (2022) amid injuries and poor roster fits, James stayed prolific enough to eclipse Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. After the Lakers upgraded James’ supporting cast before last season’s trade deadline, they sprinted toward the Western Conference Finals as a seventh seed.
Since that Christmas Day injury five years, James has both felt Father Times’ touch and has swung back with some success. The same thing applies to Durant, who tore his right Achilles tendon in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals against Toronto before missing his first season in Brooklyn (2019-20). Other overlapping injuries delayed the James-Durant reunion until Thursday.
No wonder both James and Durant laughed together afterwards.
“You just hope they miss. You just play great defense and maybe you can get a couple of turnovers on them and make it a little tough on them,” James said. “We felt we made it as tough as we could be at 39 tonight. It’s a treat to be out there with KDTrey5, for sure.”