The 2012 NBA playoffs have played out like a changing of the guard with youth (the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder) vanquishing age and experience (the Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs) to set the table for a tantalizing NBA Finals featuring the league MVP and its scoring champion. LeBron James and Kevin Durant are two of the game’s biggest stars, but both are chasing their first championship. As Michael Lee reports, it’s a matchup for the ages:

The ugly, often eye-covering basketball of the lockout-shortened season has wrought a breathtaking, stroll-through-a-botanical-garden-beauty of an NBA Finals matchup. The young, built-from-scratch Oklahoma City Thunder will take on the slightly more seasoned, built-from-salary-cap-space Miami Heat, but it’s the showdown between Kevin Durant and LeBron James that will take center stage.

The NBA hasn’t had the two best players in the game in the Finals since Michael Jordan squared off with Karl Malone in 1998 — a time before labor negotiations were allowed to wipe out huge chunks of NBA seasons. The most valuable player (James) and the player whom some argued was more worthy (Durant) will fight for supremacy and legacies. With Durant only 23 and James just four years his senior, the two superstars could easily pencil in a few more meetings in June — but they refuse to get too caught up in the hoopla.

“That’s a sexy matchup, I guess,” said Durant, the District native. “It’s not going to be a one-on-one matchup to win the series. It’s going to be all about the team. It’s going to be fun.”

When LeBron James left Cleveland with the much ballyhooed “Decision,” he seemed transformed from the NBA’s biggest star to its biggest villain overnight. But has James really morphed from the in­cred­ibly gifted athlete who wowed the league as a rookie into the biggest bad boy in the game? Washington Post columnist Mike Wise explored the issue:

If you would have told me (during James’ senior year of high school) that the same kid would grow up to become one of America’s most disliked athletes, that he would be the big-city villain standing between Kevin Durant and small-market Oklahoma City’s NBA Finals dreams, I would have said you are crazy and asked: What’s not to like about his story?

Yes, even at 17, he knew he was famous and destined for the NBA and some of his words felt pre-packaged and programmed. But without the Hummer to drive to school, beneath the tats and jewelry, he was every teenager, U.S.A. — trying to come across much more confident than he really was, wearing a mask of certainty to hide the fact that some nights as a child he had no idea where he would sleep.

Beyond “The Decision,” which he even now regrets, what happened? How did we lose sight of where he came from, how a kid who never knew his biological father, who was never incarcerated, much less arrested for anything, become so reviled? How a latchkey child ended up being raised by a village of extended family that made sure he wouldn’t be another lost soul in the streets.

“Y’all helped create the monster,” Frankie Walker, now 52, said by telephone Monday afternoon from Akron. “Y’all created the ‘King James.’ When it don’t go the way you wanted it to, he didn’t win the championship right away, you changed it up, brought him down.”

In a media session just hours before Game 1 in Oklahoma City, James appeared relaxed, despite the monumental pressure others continue to place on his broad shoulders. As Cindy Boren wrote:

A mere few hours before Game 1 of the NBA Finals tips off, LeBron James — a man who has the weight of a world of expectation and a fair amount of hate on his shoulders — was relaxed.

After the Miami Heat’s shootaround, James said he wasn’t uptight over having walked away ringless from the Finals in 2007 and last June. “The first two times I went, I couldn’t sleep,” James said (via the Palm Beach Post’s Ethan J. Skolnick), as he held “Decoder” by Jay-Z. (Game 1 tips at 9 p.m. EDT tonight from Oklahoma City on ESPN.) “Last night, I slept really well. It just shows you what type of zone I’m in right now. I’m comfortable.”

James was so mellow that he couldn’t be provoked. He was asked about real and imagined Finals opponents, including Kevin Durant (whose Oklahoma City Thunder team is the opponent tonight) and Kobe Bryant (whose Lakers the Heat has never faced).

“LeBron and Kobe?” James said with a smile. “I was disappointed that LeBron [versus] whoever it was didn’t happen. I didn’t give a damn if it was Kobe or not. Hey, listen, I understand it’s LeBron and (Kevin) Durant — that’s you guys’ storylines. I’m in the Finals so it doesn’t matter. I don’t care who it’s against. It could be us against a college team or high school team.”

More NBA Finals coverage from Washington Post Sports:

The NBA’s top two stars duke it out for supremacy and legacy

Mike Wise: It’s hard to understand how LeBron James became the villain

Heat vs. Thunder: Breaking down the matchups