OKLAHOMA CITY – 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.”
The first Finals meeting between the three-time MVP and the youngest three-time scoring champion grew organically, unlike the force-fed, James-Kobe Bryant rivalry that never came to be — despite the best wishes of Nike and those trash-talking puppets. The relationship developed over the years, as Durant shot up the ranks as a highly touted high school basketball recruit and James offered some guidance. It solidified, ironically, as the lockout allowed both players to fester longer than usual about losing to Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks last postseason.
They hooked up in August on the campus of Morgan State for a supposedly meaningless charity exhibition in which Durant dropped jumpers over James and fans begged for, and often got, James to respond.
And, as the players’ union and owners continued to squabble over revenue sharing and luxury taxes into late November, James eventually invited Durant to his home town of Akron, Ohio, for a four-day workout session he called “Hell Week.”
Through lunges, sprints, pool work and shooting drills, followed by burgers at Swenson’s, Durant and James studied how hard each other worked and pushed each other to improve. James said he could envision during those workouts how both players would eventually put their teams on the cusp of a championship.
“Two guys wanted to get better, and that’s what we did,” said Durant, who later played James in a flag football game in Akron. “I knew as a team, if we were going to continue to grow, I had to get better. I just kept out in the summer as hard as I could, and hopefully the day will come that I get an opportunity to bring home a championship.”
They both play small forward but physically couldn’t be more different: Durant is long and wiry; James is more brawny. And, ever since July 2010, when James took his talents to South Beach and Durant signed a five-year extension to keep his talents in a small market, the two players have been cast, almost unfairly, on opposite ends of the likeability spectrum. James was cast as the narcissist too consumed by how his every step was scrutinized to perform well under pressure situations; Durant, is seen as the humble assassin who ignores the pecking order and takes what he assumes belongs to him.
But characterizations are limiting and lazy, because James and Durant have plenty in common, as they score at will without being considered selfish and have a burning desire to be listed among the all-time greats.
They will need to go through each other, as both seek out that first championship ring.
“I don’t really care,” James said, when asked if this series would determine who is the best player in the game. “I want to be the best player on the floor, and that’s how I approach the game. So I don’t really care what people say at the end of this series, if KD or LeBron is the best player in the league. It has to happen at some point anyways. I won’t be the best player in the league. KD will be, and then KD won’t be the best player in the league at some point. It happens all the time.”
He added, “I’m happy to be in this position to compete against him.”
James made his first NBA Finals during his fourth season and Durant has reached his first in his fifth, but while James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were heavy underdogs against the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in 2007, Durant’s Thunder is actually favored to defeat James’s Heat.
After knocking out Dallas, the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio — the teams that have won 10 of the past 13 NBA championships — during this postseason run, Durant certainly didn’t sound like someone who is ready to defer to James, who has come up short in two Finals appearances and inexplicably vanished in the final three games against the Mavericks last year.
“Everybody is going to say, ‘It’s not our time. We’re too young.’ It’s going to happen eventually,’ ” Durant said. “But that’s not the approach we ever want to take with anything. I learned when I was a kid. My mom always told me when I was going against older guys, ‘Don’t let your age be a reason you can’t succeed.’ ”
James said he is “more at ease now” as he makes his third Finals appearance and his teammate, Dwyane Wade, expects Durant’s presence to lead to more inspired play. “I think it’s going to bring the best out of both of them, ” Wade said, taking a moment to reflect on the matchup as a basketball fan, “and it’s going to be the best for the game, and it’s going to be a great show.”