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LeBron James makes his case for MVP, drop by drop

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The MVP discussion has been overwhelming at times during this season, especially rash with nearly 30 games left to play. Still, there are two clear favorites for the award and they met on the court this past Thursday. But one performance from that game, perhaps the finest of his career, has completely swayed the tide.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes a change of heart can happen in a moment, a sudden awakening to new possibilities.

Like love at first sight, or the birth of your child - instances that alter you forever.

Thursday's game, a meeting between the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder, had that same effect regarding this season's Most Valuable Player.

The talk has been too persistent, crammed down our throats all season but choking us more steadily since January. It diminishes the level of play, which has been truly stellar, by forcing us to overanalyze and criticize instead of merely sitting back and enjoying great basketball. And it reduces the players, consistently open about their friendship and mutual admiration, into the role of enemies.

LeBron James has been the best player on the planet for a while now, winning the NBA's highest individual award four times in the last five years. His play early in the season had been very good, although not sensational, and the rumblings began that a new King would soon wear the MVP crown.

Kevin Durant has been great throughout his career as well (has it really been seven years already?), but always missing an element to his game that kept the MVP award just out of reach. But this season, he's the spectacular one, carrying the Thunder to the top of the NBA standings. Following the December injury of Russell Westbrook, Durant has led the team in every way imaginable. He's done all the little things, on offense and defense, while hitting the big, game-winning shots that makes everyone take notice.

And yet, after Thursday's performance by James, you get the feeling this year's award is still just beyond Durant's long, spidery grasp.

If you haven't seen the game, do so. It's the kind of game that everyone, from the most diehard fans to those on the periphery, can enjoy. Not for the tight score, or the thrilling back-and-forth that usually defines a classic game. This game is enjoyable because it is the very definition of a great individual performance by a great player, in this case, James.

He started the game making his first five shots, scoring 12 points in four minutes, and harassing Oklahoma City defensively, forcing early turnovers that led to easy offense. Doing everything that one player can do to change a game even with nine other athletes out on the floor.

Even Dwyane Wade, no stranger to dominating performances (see also: 2006 NBA Finals), was relegated to the role of spectator:

"It was flawless. He was aggressive defensively, he was able to play passing lanes and be who he is. That was a great start on the road by our leader. It was something that we needed."

James would finish the night with 33 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 steals and hit a ridiculous 11-of-11 shots in the painted area. All in just 33 minutes.

This assessment from Heat Head Coach Erik Spoelstra summarizes why James' performance was truly MVP-worthy:

"He did what very few can do, that's impact and set the tone on both sides of the court. He's an absolute, true throwback in terms of being a two-way player and understanding how important it is...he was just so aggressive with that mentality, everybody just gained confidence from that."

That ability to lead a team by example is the defining mark of a great player. It was the knock on Michael Jordan, early in his career, who was the best individual athlete in basketball but wasn't really successful until he started making his teammates better. It's why the Knicks' Carmelo Anthony can score the most useless 40 points a game and never win anything and that, until this season, Durant wasn't really a threat to the MVP award.

And therein lies the problem with James. Games like Thursday's could - and maybe should - be the norm, not the exception. He's always been so exceptional, it's easy to take it for granted. I've been critical of him in the past, questioning his heart and his dedication, even as his inflated numbers still showed individual success.

But the performance against OKC by James, or as Wade put it, "our leader," transcends statistics, goes beyond numbers and analysis. He led his team, he imposed his will and, more importantly, he won the game as a result.

By now, you've probably seen the footage of how James was forced out of the game, courtesy of, not one, but two Serge Ibaka swipes to the nose.

No foul was called, an alarming example of how officiating is arbitrary and unpredictable. The hits took place quickly and in succession, making them hard to see without the benefit of slow-motion.

But because James finished the play the way he did – throwing down the shot with rim-rattling force – the contact seemed incidental.

Not until afterward, as James writhed in pain with blood steadily streaming down his face onto the floor, did the impact seem significant. And not just the hit on LeBron, who luckily avoided concussion and was later revealed to have a broken nose.

But to the impact on the MVP-race, one that was prematurely decided in Durant’s favor at the end of January, not yet the season’s halfway point.

Because even the best basketball minds can get too used to greatness, as Spoelstra added after the game, "You're used to seeing him like Superman, and get up and sprint back, even after tough hits and tough falls. So you knew something was up."

And teammates like Chris Bosh, accustomed to the excellence that has become routine:

"He got hit in the face and goes up and still finishes. But you know what, he's the best, biggest, strongest athlete in the league. Only he can do that."

LeBron James.

The biggest. The strongest. The best.