When we collectively talk about the Thunder’s 2012 NBA Finals run, it’s usually to lament the subsequent trade of James Harden and premature end of what could have been a dynasty. The Thunder’s core, led by Kevin Durant, was so young and full of promise. Despite the loss, it felt like Oklahoma City would be back in the Finals frequently. The Thunder still haven’t been back five years later, and likely won’t be there any time soon after Durant left in 2016.
What often goes untold in discussions of 2012 is that Durant was incredible in that series. The Thunder were very competitive despite the 4-1 finish and despite being an underdog, and only LeBron James’ singular excellence kept Oklahoma City from winning a championship that early in their run.
LeBron was the Finals MVP and Miami’s leading scorer in each of the five games. But Durant, then just 23 years old, wasn’t far behind at all. Durant averaged 30 points on 55 percent shooting for the series. He scored a game-high 36 in Game 1, won by the Thunder in OKC. He had a chance tie the game in the final seconds of Game 2, but came up short.
LeBron sealed the game at the line to earn the road split and capture home-court advantage. Durant didn’t get another chance to win a game in the series: Russell Westbrook took the last couple of shots in a close Game 3, Mario Chalmers was the hero of Game 4, and the Heat ran away in the second half of the close out Game 5. Durant’s miss in Game 2 (and a bad foul by Westbrook late in Game 4) effectively made the series Miami’s to lose.
Miami didn’t lose.
The rest is well-worn history for the Thunder.
The script was flipped in 2017
In Game 3, it was LeBron trying to salvage a series with an extraordinary, singular performance. Durant had a chance to effectively end all hopes for Cleveland, to suck the hope from their eyes. He had LeBron, his inevitable rival all these years, waiting for him. And he showed no hesitation, no fear, and no mercy.
The same exact thing happened in the Game 5 clincher. James kept the Cavaliers in it with 35 amazing points. But every time he did something, Durant had an answer with shots like this.
Durant and LeBron have been rivals all these years without ever really having moments like this. Before their showdown in the 2012 Finals, they had a beautiful battle in Baltimore during the 2011 lockout as NBA stars barnstormed America’s cities. But since 2012, with the Thunder failing to get back to the Finals, the rivalry has been one decided on paper more than in action.
LeBron had far more team success in that time, with two more championships and a still-active streak of Finals appearances. Durant won an NBA MVP of his own and helped usher in the three-point explosion. It’s almost been akin to a cold war: Fans and analysts having been judging which one of the two is the greatest basketball player in the world while getting to see them match up only once or twice a year in relatively low-stakes environments.
The 2017 Finals were many things, including a referendum on the Warriors’ historic greatness and LeBron’s ability to overcome overwhelming firepower with a loaded, but still overmatched supporting cast. But it was also an important moment in the Durant vs. LeBron rivalry.
This battle goes to Durant, despite LeBron’s extraordinary yet futile effort. Five years ago, we thought we’d get years of Durant vs. LeBron in the spotlight. We haven’t, a reminder of the fragility of greatness.
As such, we should definitely appreciate what we’re getting, even if it seems as if we’re staring down the barrel of a Warriors dynasty. Things change fast in this chaotic world, and we never know the last time we’re going to see two of the greatest ever go heads up with a title and glory on the line.