OKLAHOMA CITY — LeBron James is playing at a record-setting level, and that only makes Kevin Durant want to get better at his own game.
Heading into the All-Star break, James is making the race for league MVP a one-man contest. He has grabbed all the headlines by logging an NBA record six straight games with at least 30 points while shooting 60 percent or better.
By comparison, the three-time NBA scoring champion Durant has hit both of those marks just five times all season. The two top vote-getters in last season’s MVP balloting will play Thursday night when Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder host James’ Miami Heat.
“I always feel that I have to raise the bar for myself every single day. I think I’m competing against the goals I set for myself at the beginning of the season, throughout the season and seeing if I can be better than that,” Durant said.
“Of course, LeBron James is a really good friend of mine, a big inspiration, a guy I looked up to in high school, middle school, just hearing about him when he was in high school and being the No.1 pick out of high school was a pretty big accomplishment and now the stuff he’s doing now, of course he’s a big inspiration. I want to get there as well, so I just got to keep working.”
Besides finishing second to James in last year’s MVP voting, Durant’s Thunder lost to the Heat in five games in the NBA Finals. Thursday night’s game will be the first time the teams have played at Chesapeake Energy Arena since the Heat won Game 2 of the Finals, then returned home to win the next three games and the title.
Miami won on its home court on Christmas Day in the only other meeting this season.
“It’s really fun. I think both teams accept the challenge,” said James, who has made 60 of his last 80 field-goal attempts. “Both teams also know it doesn’t define the season, win, lose or draw. I think both teams want to continue to get better and end on a high note going into the break. But we’re not going to put added pressure on it.
“We understand the magnitude of the game. We understand what they’re going to come with and we will be ready for it.”
Behind James, the Heat roll in on a six-game winning streak. Oklahoma City had also been hot, tying a franchise record with four straight wins by at least 20 points before getting blown out at Utah on Tuesday night.
The Thunder (39-13) are just ahead of East-leading Miami (35-14) in the overall NBA standings, with both trailing NBA-leading San Antonio in the race for home-court advantage for their chance to pursue the title.
“We know what it feels like to lose, to get there almost to the top of the mountain and fall off,” Durant said. “We know how hard it is to get back. So we just try to prepare ourselves every single day to try to do that.”
Durant, the league’s best scorer the past three seasons, has set out to improve his all-around game somewhat in the mold of James. He’s averaging career-bests in shooting percentage from the field (52), 3-point range (43) and foul line (90.4), plus in assists (4.4), steals (1.6) and blocks (1.2).
James’ numbers are still better in all of those categories except free-throw shooting, and he’s pulling down more rebounds while ranking behind only Durant and New York’s Carmelo Anthony in scoring.
Yet James and Durant are hardly archenemies, spending time training together in the offseason. James has also called Durant an inspiration for him to keep getting better.
“I really appreciate that comment because people want us to hate each other so bad,” Durant said earlier in the season. “That’s true. People want us to hate each other. I really respect him and I really compete against him hard.”
Now, there’s the added motivation that it was James’ Heat that kept Durant from winning his first NBA title.
“They’re trying to get back and capitalize. We know that feeling. It’s a little bit more passionate when you’re playing the people who put you out — and we know that,” said Chris Bosh, James’ teammate.
“Especially being in their gym, they want to send a message and we understand that. We’ve got to play with high intensity.”