James World: Watching the best go head-to-head

Both stars came to play Thursday in OKC, with James notching 33 points and Durant pouring in 28. (Photo: Sue Ogrocki/AP)

Capping off trade deadline day in style, the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder faced off last night in a matchup that pitted LeBron James against Kevin Durant. In this week’s column, former-Raptor Mike James talks about the joy and importance of seeing the NBA’s best go head-to-head.

It’s always an event when Miami plays Oklahoma City because it’s also a matchup of the two marquee superstars of today’s NBA. In this game, you need someone to bring the best out of you, and I think we’re seeing that with Durant and LeBron.

We saw it with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Magic said that he checked the boxscore every day to see what Bird had done. Bird did the same with Magic’s stats, because he always wanted to one-up him. That’s straight competitiveness. They were supposed to be the best at their positions, and the pushed each other to be better.

These types of battles make the game fun. When you get to see the two premier players in the game face off and they’re both at their peaks, they brings out the best in each other—neither guy can stop the other. It’s what we saw last night.

The only time you can’t buy into a one-on-one matchup like that is when you’re a player on the bench. Then it’s just two teams going head-to-head—that’s the only way to approach the game.

When I was in Houston and we would play the Lakers, there would be a lot of hype around Tracy McGrady versus Kobe Bryant. All I could say at those times was “Mac, I got your back! I know you’re ready to hoop, but Mac I got your back.” There were some good games between those two, but I was so caught up in the games themselves that I could never really focus on what was going on between individual players. It wasn’t until I saw that paper at the end of the game that I’d really know what a player had done.

Every game matters right now, so last night was a big win for Miami. Especially because we could have been watching a preview of the 2014 NBA Finals. Of course, you can never count out the San Antonio Spurs, and the Indiana Pacers are making a case for themselves at the moment. But there’s a very real chance that Oklahoma City and Miami meet in the Finals again.

With Russell Westbrook back, OKC can move Reggie Jackson back to the bench. And as he shifts back to that back-up position, he now has more confidence having played well as a starter. Little things like that make that team that much more dangerous heading into the playoffs, where Miami is always a threat.

So, more than what it meant for each player individually, last night was important because it was a matchup of two guys jockeying for playoff position, coming out and trying to lead their team to a win.

Whatever it takes.

Reader Question:

Have you ever been moved at the deadline? What’s it like? —Drew, Brampton

Oh, that’s a classic one. In 2004, I was playing for the Boston Celtics and I was putting up some pretty good stats in my first year as an NBA starter. As the trade deadline approached, my agent told me “Mike, there’s a 99.9 percent chance that you’re not getting traded.” I said, “Okay, are you sure?” And he said, “Yeah, 99.9 percent sure.”

So it’s deadline day and we were in Los Angeles to play the Clippers. I’m at the hotel, getting ready for the game and I hear a knock at the door. I walk over and look through the peephole and see that it’s Danny Ainge, the Celtics GM, and I said to myself, “This can’t be good.”

I opened the door and he came and said, “Mike I’ve got some good news and some bad news. We’re trading you to the Detroit Pistons. It’s a team that really wants you and they have an opportunity to do something special this year.”

We ended up winning a championship in Detroit, so everything worked out pretty nicely. I was grateful for that, but I was also grateful for my opportunity in Boston because, while Pat Riley helped me get into the league with the Miami Heat, Jim O’Brien in Boston was really the first coach to give me the opportunity to play. I’ll always appreciate that.

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