(Reuters) - The NBA playoff picture will take shape over the next month but many observers are more intrigued by the battle for the Most Valuable Player award, which is shaping up to be one of the tightest races in recent memory.
LeBron James of the Miami Heat and Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder have been locked in a dazzling display of one-upmanship all season, with a standout performance from one seemingly motivating the other to similar heights.
Debate over which player should receive the sport's highest individual honor has dominated sports talk shows all season and the only thing you will get pundits to agree on is that the verdict is still too close to call.
James has won four of the past five MVP trophies, including the last two, and his play on the court has clearly indicated that he is not ready to concede the award anytime soon.
The 29-year-old Heat forward dazzled fans with a career-high and franchise-record 61-point game earlier this month and, with under five weeks left in the regular season, is shooting over 57 percent from the field, the highest of his career.
Not to be outdone, Durant followed James's 61-point effort with a gem of his own a day later, scoring 42 points on 70 percent shooting.
Another MVP award would put James alongside Hall of Famers Bill Russell and Michael Jordan at five. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the all-time leader with six.
But joining Russell and Jordan is not what motivates James, who has said all along that winning NBA titles is what drives him. His fellow players also say James is all about the team.
"Who wouldn't want to get five? Who wouldn't want to put themselves in that category that not many have reached?" Heat guard Dwyane Wade said.
"He knows he has the game to do it. He knows he's a walking MVP every time he takes the floor for multiple years but I don't think he would sacrifice his team success for it."
Ballots for the MVP race are due April 17, a day after the regular season concludes, and all indications suggest it will be the tightest vote since Steve Nash narrowly beat Shaquille O'Neal in 2005.
Durant, who finished second to James in MVP voting in 2010, 2012 and 2013, has made a strong case for MVP honors, most notably in January when he carried the Thunder on his back while team mate Russell Westbrook was recovering from knee surgery.
The Westbrook injury threatened to send the Thunder down the Western Conference standings but Durant stepped up his game and averaged 35.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 6.1 assists while shooting 54.9 percent from the floor that month. He had a season-high 54 points in a January 17 game against Golden State.
He has now topped 40 points 11 times this season, nine more than James, and is in the midst of what may be his best National Basketball Association season.
Durant is on pace to win a fourth scoring title as he leads all players with an average of 31.8 points per game while James is third with an average of 26.9 points.
But like James, the 25-year-old Durant is heralded for his focus on winning a maiden NBA title and not allowing individual honors get in the way of the ultimate prize.
"There's no question, basketball players, you love the opportunity to get the MVP. The thing I love about Kevin - he's about winning. He's about winning over individual awards," said Thunder head coach Scott Brooks.
"And he's been consistent. He's had MVP years like three years in a row now, and the thing I love about him, he comes back a little bit better. That's hard to do."
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, Editing by Gene Cherry)