LeBron James, Kevin Durant cherish first meeting in nearly five years

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LOS ANGELES – LeBron James and Kevin Durant dueled like the good old days, finally reprising a rivalry that had been dormant since 2018.

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The future first-ballot Hall of Famers went back and forth down the stretch of the Los Angeles Lakers’ 100-95 victory over the Phoenix Suns at Crypto.com Arena on Thursday: Durant bodied through James for a layup, then James blew to the hoop on the other end. Durant swished a jumper, then James got to the stripe. During a four-minute stretch of crunch time, no one else on the court scored.

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James and Durant aren’t quite like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, because James has clearly separated himself from Durant when it comes to statistical accomplishments and rings. And they aren’t Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, because Durant claimed his championship validation and is regarded as a better pure scorer than James. They will, however, always be linked together because of the extended overlap of their remarkable careers, and recently their long-standing mutual respect has evolved into wistfulness.

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“We don’t have many matchups left,” James said. “I’m not sure how many we have left. You don’t ever want to take it for granted when you’re out there with such a great player, one of the best to ever play this game.”

Thursday’s showdown could have been the 2012 NBA Finals, when James won his first title with the Miami Heat over the Oklahoma City Thunder, sending a 23-year-old Durant into tears. It could have been the 2017 Finals, when Durant exacted revenge with the Golden State Warriors and drained a decisive three-pointer to defeat James’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Or it could have been their first meeting on Jan. 8, 2008, when James’s Cavaliers bested a teenage Durant and the Seattle SuperSonics.

James and Durant have been at it so long that the chapters blur together. Officially, they have combined for six championships, six Finals MVPs, 14 Finals appearances, five MVPs and five scoring titles, plus they teamed up to win gold at the 2012 Olympics. They have turned the NBA upside down with their free agency decisions, grown their signature sneaker brands with Nike and built off-court business empires with help from the Riches: Rich Paul of Klutch Sports for James and Rich Kleiman of Thirty Five Ventures for Durant.

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James will turn 39 in December, Durant just turned 35 in September, and they know better than anyone that their clocks are ticking. They shared hugs before tip-off and again after their buzzer Thursday. James’s mother, wife and two sons turned up to watch the showdown, as did Durant’s mother. Paul and Kleiman sat side-by-side in courtside seats for the mano a mano theater.

“There’s a few moments where you just appreciate what the fans are watching,” Suns Coach Frank Vogel said. “Two of the game’s greats going head-to-head [with] some collisions out there. The level of competition for Game 2 in the NBA season was super high. It felt like a playoff game out there. To see those two guys out there fighting for it was pretty special.”

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The last time James and Durant met was Christmas Day in 2018: James had just signed with the Lakers that summer, and Durant was in his third and final season with the Warriors. Los Angeles hadn’t yet traded for Anthony Davis or won the 2020 title. Durant hadn’t yet suffered a career-altering Achilles’ tear in the 2019 Finals or fled the Bay Area for the Brooklyn Nets, much less forced his way to the Suns. No one had a clue that a pandemic was coming.

That Christmas 2018 meeting saw James go down with a holiday-spoiling groin injury that set in motion a half-decade of missed connections. Durant was sidelined the entire 2019-20 season as he recovered from the Achilles’ injury, he never traveled to the pandemic bubble where James won his fourth title, and he even missed the past four All-Star Games because of various health issues.

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The once-indestructible James has accumulated minor injuries of his own in recent seasons, and he opted not to compete in the Olympics in 2016 and 2021 as Durant led USA Basketball to gold medals. James and Durant last squared off in the playoffs during the 2018 Finals, and a possible 2023 postseason meeting was short-circuited when the Denver Nuggets eliminated the Suns in the second round.

James and Durant rank first and second, respectively, among active players in career points, and they went deep into their bags Thursday. With Devin Booker and Bradley Beal sidelined for Phoenix, Durant scored a game-high 39 points on 14-for-28 shooting. His third-quarter tear gave the undermanned Suns a 12-point lead heading into the final period.

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“We felt we made it as tough as we could be, and [Durant] had 39,” James said. “He’s always been a natural-born scorer. There’s certain guys who come into this league – that’s what they do, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Carmelo Anthony is one of those guys. Allen Iverson is one of those guys. Kevin Durant is one of those guys. You just hope that they miss.”

But James, who played only 29 minutes in the Lakers’ season opener Tuesday and is expected to have his playing time limited this season, stayed on the court for the entire fourth quarter to lead the Lakers’ comeback. James tallied 10 of his 21 points in the final period, including a go-ahead layup with 1:11 to play and a driving basket the next time down that gave Los Angeles a two-possession lead it wouldn’t relinquish. The Lakers’ defense tightened up as well, sending extra help against Durant while holding the Suns to just 11 fourth-quarter points.

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“When I caught the ball, I felt like I saw the whole team sometimes,” Durant said. “[James] was pretty much coaching the team on how to guard certain actions. That’s what he’s been doing his whole career. Film study is one of the things he’s locked in on as he’s gotten older and he’s won championships. You could just see that and hear that in his talk throughout the whole game. It’s always a battle playing against high-IQ players like that.”

To see James and Durant like this was to rue the recent five-year gap and to wonder, as James did, how many years they will keep running it back. James flirted with retirement this summer and is under contract through 2025; Durant’s deal with the Suns runs through 2026. Both still have plenty left in the tank, but this past half-decade has seen them slip from their apexes.

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Even so, James dropped jaws and went viral on social media by jumping high to deflect a pass intended for Durant in the game’s closing seconds. As he soared off the hardwood, James proved he could still turn back the clock against a cherished opponent who has become accustomed to this sort of thing.

“He’s like a barometer,” Durant said of James. “You look at his box scores after my games, through my whole career, to see what he did. We got close when I was a senior in high school and [James] was in his third or fourth year in the league. He was dominating, and somebody that inspired me when I was coming into college and in the league. He’s somebody you can compare yourself to. If you can accomplish and achieve some of the stuff he’s done, that means you’re doing pretty solid for yourself.”

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